Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Compare Michael Sam To Jackie Robinson? Rubbish!

When I read it or hear it, it makes my blood boil--and I've read and heard it at least a twenty times. I'm talking about media people comparing Jackie Robinson to Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive end who's about to become the first openly gay player in America's favorite sport, pro football.

It's an inane comparison.

What Robinson did was monumental. What Sam is about to do is admirable and courageous, but in comparison to what Robinson did, not in the same ballpark. Mentioning Sam and Robinson in the same breath belittles Robinson's accomplishment. It also means whoever is making the comparison doesn't grasp the scope of what Robinson did.

In 1947, Robinson became the first black player in major-league baseball.  But he didn't just desegregate baseball, then America's favorite sport and the bastion of white manhood. Robinson helped pave the way for America's black revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. What he did ranks with the greatest social achievements in America in the 20th century. Any one who compares Sam to Robinson needs to re-examine what Robinson did.

Look at America in 1947. When Dodger general manager Branch Rickey elevated Robinson from the minors to the major league Brooklyn Dodgers, there was, the most of the US, two countries--white America and black America. In much of the US, particularly in the South, blacks were treated like second-class citizens. Depending on the section of the country,  schools, hotels, restaurants, bathrooms, even drinking fountains were for whites only. Interracial marriage was outlawed in nearly every state. In parts of the South, whites could still get away with lynching a black man.

So what Robinson did, in 1947 America, was much more than desegregate major-league baseball. He symbolized blacks banging on the door of white America demanding their rights. The weight of black America was on his shoulders. If he failed, it wasn't just a personal setback. The black revolution would have also taken a step backward.

Many whites sided with Robinson but many, rightly realizing their way of life was under attack, hated him. He was cursed, spat upon and was the target of death threats and every imaginable manner of racial hatred. He put his life on the line. Lesser men would have quit, but he didn't. He had some good times, but he also went through hell his first few years in the National League.

This is not what Sam's life is going to be like when he's signed by some NFL team. Most fans and players will be in his corner. That's because much of the work, breaking down anti-gay barriers in this country, has already been done. In the last two decades much of America has become gay-friendly. However, homophobia and a juvenile frat-boy mentality still reign in the NFL world. Some players won't be comfortable around Sam in the locker room, in the shower and on the playing field. He'll be the target of slurs, venomous trash-talk and assorted negativity and unpleasantness.

But will Sam have to contend with the hatred and dangers that Robinson faced his first few years in the majors? No way. Is the weight of gay America on Sam's shoulders? Not really. Compared to what Robinson went through in the late 1940s, Sam's life in the NFL will be a stroll in the park.

So when you hear people compare Sam's journey to Robinson's--and you'll hear that a lot in the next few months--just chalk it up to ignorance.

Sadly, such a comparison does a disservice to Robinson's legacy and devalues his great achievement.