I was driving my 14-year-old daughter to school on Monday, February 10th, just after 6:30 a.m. Over the NPR airwaves came the news that All-America football player Michael Sam — a defensive end at Missouri — had announced that he’s gay. However frigid and dark it was on the Memphis streets, you could count me as fully awake at that point.
I turned to Sofia as we slowed behind the drop-off traffic: “This is big. Actually, it’s huge.” My daughter nodded, but stared straight ahead. Didn’t say a word. It was still dark on Monday morning. She’s 14.
That brief, one-way conversation speaks volumes about how the world will accept Sam’s brave decision to come out publicly three months before he hopes to be chosen in the NFL draft. For middle-aged folks like me (and older), the announcement is seismic. I grew up in high school locker rooms that would not have welcomed a gay teammate. That’s on me. And my generation.
But we evolve. For the “kids” among us (and by that I mean virtually anyone under the age of 30), Sam’s announcement is much more of the “ho-hum” variety. My daughters are growing up with prominent gay characters on the shows they watch, in the books they read. A gay man on a football field? Of course. Why not?
The hard truth for Michael Sam — and the athletes who follow his lead and make public information that, someday, should not be news — is that his treatment in an NFL locker room will be a reflection more of his talent as a player than his choice of romantic partner. Star players — straight or gay — will be treated like royalty, with the privileges athletic stardom brings in America today. Players who struggle — straight or gay — will receive their share of criticism, not all of it lighthearted, and some of it directed at their sexuality. A locker room is a Petri dish of youth culture. There will always be a pecking order. But I’m not convinced an athlete’s sexual preference will be a tipping point in that order.
• Let’s go back to October 30 of last year, opening night for the Memphis Grizzlies and the NBA coaching debut of one Dave Joerger. Crystal ball in hand, I gaze to the All-Star break and tell you the following: Marc Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, will miss 24 of 53 games.
Tony Allen, the Grindfather himself, will miss 26 games.
For the first time in four years, Memphis will not send a player to the All-Star Game. (And their top candidate, point guard Mike Conley, will be sidelined at the break.)
The Grizzlies will be an even .500 in the Grindhouse (14-14).
Once you stopped trembling, you’d wonder where exactly the Griz sit in the standings and playoff race. So I tell you: 29-23, one loss behind the current eighth seed in the Western Conference. You exhale. And you say, “I’ll take it.”
The Grizzlies have a battle on their hands to reach the playoffs this year, let alone the Western Conference finals as they did in 2013. But if you ask me, Joerger has made quite a coaching debut, steering an oft-wounded team through four months of shaking heads, rolling eyes, and call-in criticism. I’ve long felt you measure a team’s backbone — regardless of sport — by its road record, and the Grizzlies are 15-9 as guests this season. NBA teams with fewer road losses: one (San Antonio). All a fan can really ask is that a team contend, that it plays games of interest in April. Thanks in part to names that would have shattered that crystal ball — Courtney Lee? Nick Calathes? James Johnson? — the Grizzlies are in a position to still play games of interest in April. Unlikely, sure. And perfectly Memphis.