I’m proud to be a Mizzou fan. Even getting
spanked outplayed outlasted by Auburn in the SEC title game was a pretty great moment. But the coverage this week of SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam coming out? Even more so.
Yes I’m proud that he’s a Tiger. And yes I’m proud that the school and program have produced a young man willing to step up share who he is. And yes I’m proud that he chose to do so before the NFL combine, knowing it could impact his draft position and his contract. But that’s not what I’m really proud of. What I’m really proud of is that he came out to his team at the start of the season. Months ago. And not only did it not cause any problems, but it also did not get any coverage.
No ugly incidents.
Just a team.
It would have been easy in this season of Tiger football for someone to make an innocent remark that gets picked up by the press. It would have been understandable if someone on the team decided to make a big show of their own homophobia and ignorance. It would have been commonplace for Sam to keep his mouth shut and go through the season quietly, then let his teammates wonder later why he didn’t trust them enough to be honest about who he was. But it was his trust in his teammates, their solidarity and support, and the way in which they acted as a team that is not only remarkable, but has been mostly missed (though not completely) in the coverage of this story.
We’ve all been members of teams, some of which we trusted, and some we didn’t. The impact on our performance is noticeable, especially our long term engagement and productivity. When we are surrounded by those we trust, who work to make our lives easier, and whom we know we can depend on day in and day out, we are better. What’s more, we are programmed for reciprocity, so our inclination is to return trust and helpfulness. This can snowball into an amazing cycle of peace on Earth and goodwill toward men (and women) if we let it. I’ve been part of teams that defied all expectations of productivity and tenure, all because they truly enjoyed working together. (As an aside, how together was this team? Sam came out to his teammates in August. He came out to his parents in January.)
It doesn’t always work that way, of course. A breakdown of trust can sink a team faster than unrealistic expectations, a poor leader, or cement loafers. I’ve seen teams that should succeed fail simply because of that lack of trust. If the Tigers weren’t acting as a unit, this season could have quickly gone from SEC East Champion to complete disarray. Credit to Gary Pinkel, the coaching staff, the university, and the young men who served as locker room leaders for not letting this happen. It’s a great example of teamwork and togetherness overcoming adversity to succeed.
I won’t pretend to understand the burden carried by someone who has to hide who they are every day. But I hope that this at least gives them comfort in the thought that coming out is not an event that you go through alone. There are people around you that will support and uphold you. Having a strong team can make even the biggest of mountains a molehill.
(And yes, I’ve heard the comments about “I don’t care if he’s gay, it shouldn’t be a big deal.” You’re right. It shouldn’t be. But it is. Let’s make it so in a positive light. Because there are plenty of people out there who will take a opposing view, and do so very vocally. These young men deserve all the positive reinforcement we can muster.)