Don’t forget the rest
Michael Sam is the latest in professional sports’ discard pile
In the realm of professional sports, quitting has become the brand of the unwanted. If you quit, you have not retired, you did not “leave on your own terms,” you did not fade into obscurity, riding into the sunset was not your forte. You left your group and heartlessly went solo. I mean, who could respect a person like that, right?
Wrong. Michael Sam, the short time Montreal Alouettes, is just the latest athlete to feel the wrath of a collective fandom that can’t understand why a man (because, you know, men’s sports are the only ones worth paying any attention to – note the dripping sarcasm) would just leave his team, the one that always referred to as a brotherhood. Look, the Alouettes are not a religious order, they are not part of a video game franchise, they are not encircled in some kind of creepy ritual, they are just a football team. Save the leaving people behind rhetoric exactly that, behind.
Sam, who left the team for his own mental health, has been branded a quitter by many. There is this idea that athletes should somehow be immune to the mental battering that befalls each and every person in the world. When we hand athletes even small paychecks to put their bodies on the line, we seem to expect that they sacrifice their humanity.
How dare you have feelings! You went home for your father’s funeral during the middle of an eight game home stand? What are you, a pussy or something? You’re only allowed to give into these demons once you are no longer important to my fantasy league. Don’t let the sports world’s cultural imagination hit you in the ass on your way out.
Apparently, athletes who face challenges in their lives can only function as sob stories. You know the ones. The articles where we are meant to feel awful that a player has blown millions on expensive watches, or when people cry foul when an athlete’s career is stifled by, I don’t know, an assault charge or two. Chris Borland, the San Francisco 49er who retired from football because of concussions, came as a shock. But Michael Sam didn’t get the same leeway.
Maybe it was the fact that he waffled on his decision, leaving the team more than once; perhaps it was the amount of money he was making in a league where the lowest of the low are functioning on what amounts to close to minimum wage; the fact that he came out as gay prior to the NFL draft certainly gave the story a homophobic hue, the elephant in the room that everyone and their dog pseudo-acknowledged as a means to bash him. The lack of certainty as to whether he would be in the lineup is a certifiable gripe, even if it is a small one, every other excuse for repeatedly insulting the integrity of the defensive lineman is nothing short of plain ignorance.
Is it that hard to imagine that this particular concoction of stress might just force someone out of professional football for their own personal well-being? In a society that increasingly sings the praises of therapists, professional sports employees are somehow ineligible. They are supposed to be tougher, have more fortitude, insert phrase about hardiness here.
The sad truth is, we don’t care. Leave the crying for when it comes time to write the obituary, or to scribble a five hundred word write-up about that pro athlete we forgot about who once held us in the palm of his giant hand. We have romanticized these people as shells of themselves. And we make up for our almost morbid fascination with those abused by over-celebrating the successes of those who managed to become ridiculously successful at the conclusion of their playing careers. We are obsessed with one percent, and forget about the others.
We still celebrate those who are quote-unquote, broken, in other ways. Pete Rose has become the hero of all those who feel they have been unjustly vilified. The only thing Rose ever quit was listening to that little part of your brain that maintains your self-control. Michael Jordan had gambling issues, sure, but he had room to spare, he had permission to fail, as a society we had given him a huge leash. Michael Sam does not have that same luxury.
Those who disparage him have fallen on the one crutch they can find that doesn’t scream prejudice. This nameless they have latched onto the fact that attacking an athlete’s ability is a surefire way to not be called out. These people insist on calling Michael Sam, the defensive player of the year in the toughest division in college football, a bad football player. Was he destined for NFL stardom? Certainly not, but he was given a (rumoured) six-figure salary by Montreal to be more than a benchwarmer. Hopefully he is able to return to the game he loves, to support himself doing so, and to leave behind this flawed beginning.
I think it is fair to worry, though, that this second chance may never come. Once you are branded with the word quitter, there isn’t much room to come back. People will be watching, to look at even the slightest hint that might suggest a reason to mistrust. They will not let Sam acknowledge the demons he is so obviously working to fight against. No, he might be treated as damaged goods, each reason for being so described as vague and inconsequential as the last, and that is a shame.
A society that treats its sports heroes like gods until they descend to the land of mere mortals does not deserve to bask in the afterglow of their favourite players’ successes. They do not get to take credit, or to ignore flaws, or to champion just how much they support their players. For people like Michael Sam, love is one thing that they are not feeling; they are feeling the pressure put on them by decades of a strength-decreeing façade that we would do well to break into a bunch of shattered pieces.