Michael Sam Is Not a ‘Distraction’

The only detrimental thing this Missouri defenseman could’ve done to his football career was keep his mouth shut.

G.M. Andrews/AP

The NFL was thrust into the 20th century Sunday. Its old guard pushed back Monday, and I felt a powerful jolt of deja vu: Didn't the Pentagon just run this experiment? And abandon it after 17 counter-productive years?

Michael Sam, the bravest football player in America, handed the NFL a gift when he came out Sunday night, four months before the draft. Most of America cheered and the NFL outwardly heaped on the praise with a glowing public statement. But back in the executive suites, the old guard running the league anonymously grumbled. Sports Illustrated quoted eight anonymous executives and coaches issuing one tired dig after another. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game," one said. "To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."

"Their answers were consistently unsparing," SI said, with the execs collectively predicting "a significant drop in Sam's draft stock." Sportswriter Rob Rang concurred in a CBS sports piece titled: "Examining why Michael Sam's NFL Draft stock is falling." Even gay-rights champion and former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe conceded on Anderson Cooper 360 Monday night that Sam had probably hurt himself in the draft.

"Sam's homosexuality isn't the point," Rob Rang assured us. But coming out, that's causing trouble.

Sound familiar? The old men of the NFL are trotting out the same tired arguments the codgers in the Pentagon got away with for years. The military fretted about "unit cohesion." This week, the charge sounds comically pettier: They keep referring to telling the truth as a "distraction." Both old guards feign horror at nakedness in the showers—as if most straight men in America haven't pulled their dicks out at a urinal beside a gay guy in the last week.

Rang copped to the comparison: “There remains a bit of a don't-ask-don't-tell policy" in the NFL he wrote. A bit? That's precisely the unwritten policy every gay player has adhered to in the history of the NFL. You can be gay, as long as you lie about it.

Yes, you have to lie. The big lie about Don't Ask was that lies were not required; all they asked for was an omission: just Don't Tell. Every gay guy in America knows how absurd that notion is. And naive. And in close-knit, hyper-masculine units like pro football or the U.S. army, where fear runs feverish and even the whiff of gay rumors could be career-limiting, the closet can be all-consuming.

I've spent years following a handful of gay soldiers, and the lengths they went to hide the truth—big and especially small—were mind-boggling. They start with de-gaying the house. A lieutenant colonel described rushing home to de-gay before hosting his unit's Christmas party: Hide pictures with gay friends and any iffy music or magazines. An Ani DiFranco or Tori Amos can be neutralized with a hefty country section or heavy metal. “Lighting and bathroom products—those were the biggest tells,” the officer said. “Not too many lamps—too much dim lighting screamed lady friend!” No more than two or three hair "products." Bonus points for Pert Plus or Vaseline Intensive Care; no rejuvenating lotion or eye cream, and never ever anything labeled Clinique.

Football is actually less uber-macho than the army, and Michael Sam probably could have gotten away with a Clinique bottle, especially if he balanced it with enough NASCAR and Bud Light. But he had a boyfriend. That gets really tough, especially once the guy moves in. "Roommate" is the obvious alibi, but that introduces surprisingly-complex new lies.

The lieutenant colonel experienced that with his Christmas party. Erasing his boyfriend Mark from his bed and bathroom was the easy part. It was trickier to convincingly recreate Mark's imprint as a platonic pal downstairs. The soldiers had heard about a "roommate," so he had to be invented in the guest room. A friend helped fill up the closet, the medicine cabinet, and even shoes under the bed. “People snoop in all that shit,” he said. They ran around the house shuffling things: Were there enough pictures in “Mark’s room?” Should they smear toothpaste on the sink so it looked used? No! Why would they have only cleaned one of the bathrooms for a party? Overcompensating was just as deadly a giveaway. Visitors might not think it through, but something would look wrong. Reality is hard to mimic. The eye can spot a lie. They lined his bathroom products up neatly, but not perfectly.

De-gaying your life doesn’t end with the physical cover-ups. Every hour spent with your boyfriend, or even another gay guy, requires a cover story. There better not be hesitation to a simple question like, "How was your weekend?" It's safest to de-gay fresh anecdotes you've actually experienced, but it's a lot trickier than swapping out pronouns. If you start the story about your buddy, you better be prepared to rewrite flirty section on the fly. It can be safer to spin her as a romantic interest, but you need her backstory, which has to change week to week, unless you're prepared to actually produce a woman and take on the monumental serious-girlfriend charade, which is way more work than it looks like. (Those Frasier and Three's Company farces were not far off.)

Speaking of, sitcoms can be dangerous, too: Don’t feign ignorance of gay characters—that reeks of overcompensation. But if a fellow soldier or football player watches, that might be an opening to risk confiding, and forging a ‘safe’ friend.

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Calibrating every facial expression, that's the hardest and most taxing part. You never fool people completely, especially in a tight unit like an army platoon or an NFL squad, where you spend hours a day inches from your buddy, learning all his moves, covering his back. Some will guess, others just know you're deceiving them about something. They sense you tensing up at peculiar moments, acting skittish, laughing a little too hard, over-feigning outrage or surprise. All that missing time you can't account for, when you've always got a story, but something always smells a little phony.

The closet equals work equals distraction. You’re strapped into a polygraph machine 24 hours a day.

Rumors, innuendo and passive aggressive jokes—those are huge distractions. The truth is not.

The CIA figured that out two decades ago. In his new book, Duty, Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounts the years of foot-dragging by the aging relics at the Pentagon. (Though he doesn't quite see it that way.) Gates did usher in an end to the policy, but first recounts how he acted as CIA director in 1992 to lift its ban on gay agents, so long as they did tell: "If a person was open about his or her sexual orientation and therefore not vulnerable to blackmail, they were welcome to serve..." he wrote. (Pages 330-331 for the rest of the story.)

Gates imposed a Must Tell policy on the CIA, because he recognized gayness was not the distraction—hiding it was. It's the closet that causes the rumors, and the lying and deceiving, and the distrust that drives the wedges. When it's all out in the open, there's no one to whisper about, no veiled accusations or "jokes" implying the defensive end's a homo. No shame and desperation to drive a teammate to hand over money or the playbook to a blackmailer. Truth is easy, the closet is hard.

Of course Sam’s announcement will force a brief readjustment, but why do these NFL executives think so little of their players to assume it will be negative? Sam came out to his team at Missouri last August: How did his "distraction" affect the team? Mizzou won the Cotton Bowl, finishing fifth in the nation in the final AP poll. And Michael's teammates elected him MVP.

That's the goofiest part about the kerfuffle: It's not a theoretical discussion. Michael Sam has already run this experiment. He told ESPN when he came out to his team, "Their reaction was like, 'Michael Sam finally told us.'" All that energy Sam put into deception for three years could have gone into his game.

That's a data sample of one. But it's been widely reported that many gay players are out to close teammates and surely many more suspect.

The military ran the same Don't Ask experiment with nearly a million men and women, with much worse hand-wringing about ending it. The generals and admirals warned of shattering unit cohesion and endangering national security in the midst of a war. We did it anyway. Barely a ripple.

Michael Sam has one big advantage over the aging NFL execs who whined to SI. Sam can see the future clearly by looking at his past. He just spent three years in the closet at Mizzou; then half of one out. He knows which one was easier. documented Sam's coming out party Saturday, with allies who had lived through earlier outings: "You all are the ones who are nervous," Sam said. "I'm excited."

Sam knows how much easier the truth is than the lie. Soon, the NFL curmudgeons will too.