Michael Sam appears to be a fine young man. But, no, he isn't the first openly gay male U.S. athlete to play in a major sport. And "brave"? Can we please dispense with the absurd Jackie Robinson comparisons? Wake me when a black collegiate pro prospect "comes out" as a Republican.
A starting senior on the University of Missouri football team, Sam looks like a mid-round draft pick in the NFL. He recently "came out" to his teammates, many of whom said they already knew or suspected. Neither teammates nor coaches had an issue. Most normal people ask, "Who cares?" or "Can he play?"
Some, however, liken Sam's "pioneering status" to that of Jackie Robinson, the first black man to play in the modern baseball major leagues. "Michael Sam has the opportunity to be the Jackie Robinson of the NFL," said professor Orin Starn, chairman of Duke University's cultural anthropology department. "Michael Sam is a Jackie Robinson Moment For NFL," according to the editorial headline in the Boston Globe. And then there's Fox Sports analyst Brendon Ayanbadejo who said, "We were there to celebrate his groundbreaking voyage that in many ways is similar to those of Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks."
Where to begin?
First, Sam isn't even the first openly gay male athlete to play in a major American pro sport. That distinction goes to Glenn Burke, who played with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Oakland Athletics from 1976-1979. He might well have played longer and been more successful had he not clashed with management -- not his teammates -- over his sexual orientation.
Burke was "out" to teammates, management and sportswriters. It is not Burke's fault that both media and management preferred to say nothing. Dodger management reportedly offered him money to go through a sham marriage. Burke refused.
Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, whose son died of AIDS in 1991, allegedly helped engineer a trade of Burke to Oakland because of a friendship between Lasorda's son and Burke. The trade of the popular, outgoing player stunned many Dodgers. Team captain Davey Lopes said, "No one cared about his lifestyle."
Traded during the 1978 season to the Oakland A's, Burke ended up managed by the openly homophobic Billy Martin. The volatile manager, according to a documentary about Burke, "baited" him with gay slurs. Frustrated, and never realizing his potential, Burke left baseball in 1980 and became a drug addict. A former Oakland teammate, Shooty Babitt, said, "They ran him straight out of the game." Burke died of AIDS in 1995. He was 42.