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Sellner: Michael Sam has a chance to be this generation’s human rights hero

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Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star/MCT

Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star/MCT

There are moments in sports history that we will always cherish, with most occurring on a field, a court or rink.

And then there are the iconic moments that encapsulate more than just sports and show that athletes are much more than just freakish talents for the rest of us to gawk at. They are people, too.

There was Lou Gehrig uttering the famous phrase, “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth,” after he retired from baseball following his diagnosis of ALS. Then there was the 1968 Olympics when Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos saluted the National Anthem with black gloves to stand up for equal rights for people of all races.

Sunday, we had Michael Sam.

Sam, a defensive end out of Missouri and NFL Draft prospect, announced to the world that he is gay, potentially becoming the first openly gay player in the NFL if his name is called on draft day or if he’s signed as a rookie free agent.

I have two words to say to Mr. Sam: Thank you.

Today, we live in a world where acceptance of all people regardless of color, gender or sexual orientation is growing. I’m part of a generation that looks back on the days of the Civil Rights Movement and wonders how on earth people could have been so bigoted to believe that the color of one’s skin predisposed them to a better life than anybody else.

Down the line, children are going to open their history books in class and read about this critical stage in American history and wonder why people would want to deny anyone the right to love who they want.

I applaud Sam for having the courage to stand up before a national audience and stand up for who he is and what he believes in.

“I’m an openly, proud gay man,” he said in an interview with ESPN.

Proud. That’s the key word here.

No person should have to look in the mirror and feel like they can’t be comfortable with who they are because society doesn’t accept them. It doesn’t matter if you have insecurities about your appearance, intelligence, occupation, social-economic class or something as inherent as race or sexual orientation.

Michael Sam is gay. That’s who he is, and he’s not shying away from it, nor should he. It’s a lesson that everyone can adopt in their own lives. Don’t be afraid to be who you are. It doesn’t matter that the game of football has an image where one must be a man’s man in order to make it. Just because Sam is gay, does that not make him man enough to play in the NFL? I think not.

I certainly hope Sam’s new teammates will accept him just as his Missouri teammates and coaches did when Sam told the team of his sexual orientation before the start of this past season. And they respected Sam’s privacy so much that they allowed him to come out on his own terms before he embarked upon his journey to the NFL. They deserve praise as well.

It all boils down to this: all we can be is ourselves.

The best anyone can ever ask of him or herself is to look in the mirror at the end of each day and hope to say, Today, I was the best possible version of myself that I could be. And I’m going to do it again tomorrow.

And that’s the message we should be sending to the generation of tomorrow.

There are sure to be people who don’t agree with Sam’s sexual orientation, whether it’s NFL general managers, coaches, players or fans. And perhaps Sam’s announcement will have a negative impact on his draft status, whether due to his sexual orientation or because of the inevitable media circus that will follow every development of Sam’s path to the draft.

But there’s something to be said about a man with the mental toughness and bravery to sit in front of a camera and proudly tell the world who he is. I’d want someone like that my football team. I’d want to go to battle with him. And that’s not even factoring in Sam’s skills on the field, where he was named the Associated Press’ Southeastern Conference Co-defensive Player of the Year.

And now the NFL, a fixture in today’s American culture, is thrown into the center of this critical issue.

Years from now, children will read about Sam’s courageous act, just as I did with the likes of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and so on for standing up for all human rights. Will tomorrow’s children admire how much society has grown to accept all different kinds of people? Or will they be left scratching their heads, wondering how we took a step back in the fight for equal rights?

I can only hope those students look upon Sam with the same admiration and bravery that I did to not shy away from who they are. That’s the world I want my kids to grow up in.

Your move, NFL. Are we taking a step forward, or a step back?

Stephen Sellner can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.

1 Comment

One Response to “Sellner: Michael Sam has a chance to be this generation’s human rights hero”

  1. Jonathan C. on February 11th, 2014 1:54 pm

    I don’t see what there is to thank him… There’s just something not right about this whole thing…

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