Michael Sam, And The Black (And Gay) Politics Of Being "Twice As Good"

Michael Sam (Paras Griffin/Getty Images)
Michael Sam (Paras Griffin/Getty Images)

The analogy many gay rights activists and allies have made between their fight for equal rights and the Black American's fight for civil rights is flawed, but I understand why it's made. It's a natural comparison, but it breaks down when considering that (most) Blacks can't blend in. In America, Blackness is conspicuous, and this conspicuousness allows for the bias to be more pervasive and panoramic. Pointing this out doesn't minimize the struggles and fight of the gay community. It just recognizes it's two completely separate battles with some similarities.

One of these similarities is playing out in front of us with Michael Sam, who was recently cut by the St. Louis Rams, and has gone three days now without any NFL team picking him up, and apparently will not be asked to join the Rams practice squad.

To be fair, Sam may still get picked up by an NFL team. It might even happen before I finish writing this. In fact, the ESPN ticker tells me he's being invited to Dallas to try out for the Cowboys. But it's not official yet, and considering his talent and production level, his story reminds me of a story my dad shared with me a few times.


My dad grew up in New Castle, Pa, a small town roughly an hour north of Pittsburgh. He was a high school student in the early 60s, and he remembers an unwritten policy carried by the basketball team. Black players were allowed on the team. You could even be a star. But, you were not going to be Black and ride the bench. Basically, you couldn't be Black and be average. If you were Black with starter or star talent, you made the team. If you were Black with bench warmer talent, you'd be better off trying out for the YMCA league.

This policy's existence is no surprise to anyone who either grew up in that era or had/has parents and grandparents who did, and it's an accurate synopsis of the politics of prejudice. True progress isn't Jackie Robinson making the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's the .220 Black hitter with the above average arm making the Dodgers. It's not a superstar openly gay athlete making a roster. It's a team deciding a below-average openly gay player is worth keeping, is worth the distraction his gayness provides.

Scandal's Rowan Pope, father of Olivia Pope, put it best:

"You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have"

Michael Sam, still unemployed NFL free agent, would probably agree.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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This reminds me of something I saw Chris Rock say on the HBO special the Black List. It was a show where they had all of these well-known Black people talk about their experience being Black and famous and how it impacted their lives. I remember Chris Rock saying something similar to your point. He said that baseball wasn't really integrated until the 70s because that's when you starting seeing bad Black baseball players.

His point that you don't necessarily want to be bad at what you do as much as you want the chance to try again and improve yourself. To the extent that White privilege is real (as opposed to Black people denied their basic civil rights and certain political orientations wanting to justify oppression for their own ends) is that ability to make a mistake and not have it be the end of your existence or dreams.

I do think Michael Sam is going to hang around as a NFL player, but he's going to have to scramble in what's a hard way to make a living out of the big 4 professional sports in North America. Heck, it's only in the past 15 years or so that being a Black quarterback wasn't a rare thing. Maybe in another 20, I'll get pissed off about the gay QB the Jets have, carefully watching my language as my daughter visits for Sunday dinner. But that takes time.

Chris Rock was also right about Black people having to fly to places White people can walk to. I've actually been in the town where Chris Rock lives (because I had a weekend job the next town over), and dude has a point. Like how are all these regular a$$ people living in a town filled with Black celebs? LOL