Sam: I Am: Football, youth and the psychology of identity

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Univ. of Missouri students, and young people alike, stand with Sam

By David Hauser

Michael Sam came out this week.

Relatively unknown on the national stage beyond the scope of college football enthusiasts and NFL “draftnicks” as an All-American defensive lineman and AP SEC Defensive Player of the Year, now his name, image, and clips of an interview with ESPN Outside the Lines’ Chris Connelly are being strewn across the mediasphere for society to react to and judge.

Through these initial and brief media openings into Michael Sam’s world, a few things seem clear.  He appears comfortable and confident, stating clearly and firmly, “I’m not afraid of who I am” in response to Connelly questioning what it is like to be setting out on such a landmark moment in American Sports as an openly gay athlete.

His comments also suggest a young man with tremendous courage—courage not just to “be true to one’s self,” which is hard enough for most of us, but to be one’s self while preparing to walk into the perils of an NFL locker room fraught with oddly expressed versions of masculinity, hazing, and the emotional sensitivities of a sledgehammer.  Furthermore, his comments also suggest courage to be entering the 24-hour news cycle that at times can be as damaging and dangerous as the NFL playing field itself.  But as much as Sam communicates courage, confidence, and comfort discussing this new frontier in American sports, it is impossible to see Michael Sam without noticing how young he is.

Michael Sam, at the ripe age of 24, is taking a leadership role on a civil rights issue that many wiser and more experienced 50 year olds still dance around with stiff and politically correct talking points.  What is so refreshing about Michael Sam’s entry on to the national scene is that it does not seem contrived.  He has the feel of a man just talking about who he is and wanting to describe himself before others can dictate a narrative of “who he is.”

Perhaps only a young person can be this brave.  It also suggests something about this new generation.  The “25 and under folks” are the progressive group of 18 and 19 years olds from 2008 who were in large part responsible for electing this country’s first African-American President (Sam would’ve been 18 in 2008).  At some point in the last 5-6 years we hit a tipping point with the LGBT movement, where verbalizing anti-gay remarks were enough to suspend the most financially profitable show on television, rather than a former age when openly pro-gay sentiments in media could be prone to scare advertisers away.  I am not well versed enough to know precisely what was the moment or action that finally tipped society toward social justice on this issue.  However I will say it is Sam’s generation, and their increased tolerance for difference, their greater valuing of equality, and belief in fairness, that has opened the space on the national scene for Michael Sam to speak honestly and comfortably about who he is.

In the Fall of 2008, bubbling with idealism and optimism of what felt like a genuinely new chapter in American history, I entered a PhD program in psychology at Arizona State University in hopes of changing the world for the better.  I was immediately thrust into an opportunity to teach new undergrads a course on Career Development.  I promptly adapted this course to fit with what I felt I knew a little more about, exploring one’s values and interests amidst a diverse range of human skills and expression (since as a student in a protracted run of graduate school at the time, I’m not sure how equipped or deft I was to be teaching others about job marketability).

I recall early in the semester a lecture and discussion I put together on the idea of “diversity in the job place” and how these young people were going to need to figure out how to adapt to differences, even sexual orientation differences, to fit within the ever evolving job marketplace of the 21st century.  I had grandiose plans of speaking from my perch of a podium and teaching these new young minds the importance of being open to differences in others.  Perhaps somewhat biased by the arid and abrasive politically climate in Arizona at the time toward Mexican immigrants, I simply assumed I had an uphill battle.

Much to my dismay and surprise, I was the only vocal voice in the classroom of 36 projecting a notion of ignorance.  Mostly I was ignorant to a new age of young people who grew up on the Internet and were talking about sexual orientation with greater nuance and an expanded openness and tolerance than I was used to hearing from my peers when growing up.  For at that point, I thought I was young enough to still have a pulse of the young people and not yet aware that I was talking to an entirely new generation built on the values shaped by the vast freedom of information offered by the infinite connections to others via the Internet.

Two particular students’ voices stood out that day.  One male voice came from a Phoenix suburb who led the group discussion politely, but with enthusiasm and earnestness that “his generation” saw things differently, saying something to the effect that “[sexual orientation] isn’t a thing to us, it doesn’t matter if you are gay or straight, it’s just about who you are.”  The other voice was an outspoken ex-soldier from the War of Iraqi Freedom, who in his first semester in college was still trying to fit his robust personality and series of experiences from wartime into the quieter trimmings of a state university student body with limited success, as peer students were puzzled of how to absorb his typically verbose, strong, and not always popularly held opinions.  This ex-soldier spoke with some gender narrowness, but spoke of his personal transformation in his own worldview based on his recent experiences abroad stating, “a man is a man and it’s not so much about “that” [gay/straight], but your actions and how you carry yourself.  Everything else is just your personal business.  A man should get to choose to be whoever he wants to be.”

Likely there were voices that did not speak up that day in the group of 36 that held different views, perhaps less socially-just LGBT sentiments.  But their voices were not heard.  For those voices were not of the majority opinion anymore and no longer offered the safety in numbers found within groupthink.

This is just one example, in one specific location and time.  The “small sample size” alarm bells are surely ringing loudly as this is far from scientific evidence of cultural change.  Since 2008, there remains a genuine problem with bullying in schools and on social media. YouTube comment sections are still far too comfortable a venue for the “f” word.  Young people are still far too often resorting to hurting themselves or even suicide based on the agonizing struggle of seeking acceptance from peers. But we are somewhere very different in 2014.  A lot has changed in what feels like a short amount of time.

It is evident something happened in the last decade, but I suggest the elected officials had little to do with it.  It has been the young people, under the age of 25, who are taking the lead on changing the cultural temperature toward the LGBT community.  It is the shadowy hacker group Anonymous that values equality for people and free information that is changing the world around us.  It is the Reddit message boards threads that are re-writing the social script, especially for boys and adolescent males, that being a man is not how 30-something athletes like Richie Incognito suggest it to be. It is 12th Man and Seattle Seahawks fan, Macklemore, singing about “Same Love.” And today it is Michael Sam.  The youth are rising and teaching the rest of us.

Not long ago, figures like Matthew Sheppard were tortured and killed for living too openly, making themselves too known.  Michael Sam will never again be unknown and this is most certainly progress.  Of course we are still not “there,” we have not arrived at the harmonious idyllic village upon the hill where everyone can simply come as they are without fear of repercussions.  But the pragmatic question left before us is: as a collective can we continue to work toward opening the space for others to make themselves unabashedly known?

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