There is a moment in 42—the biopic about Jackie Robinson, the first black player in major league baseball—when Robinson asks Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey (played by Harrison Ford) why Rickey signed him, an action that broke the color barrier in sports. Rickey chokes up, sharing with great difficulty a deeply guarded secret about how he had failed to do enough to reject racism and stand up for a young teammate—a good catcher—when Rickey was a player and coach at Ohio Wesleyan. It was a powerful moment because, while it’s OK for men to scream and yell and throw things when they’re emotional, a real man—a man’s man—doesn’t cry.
New NFL St. Louis Rams football player Michael Sam is not Jackie Robinson. Unlike the horrific racism and death threats Robinson faced constantly on and off the field, critics of Sam’s seventh-round draft pick were immediately shunned and, in the case of Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones, fined and suspended, for stepping outside the bounds of civility. But on May 10, when Sam became the first openly gay male post-college athlete drafted by a major American sports team, he broke another once-impenetrable barrier—his unabashed emotional reaction instantly changed the definition of masculinity forever. “Manly men” break down, cry and kiss their boyfriends with joy!
Sports fans throughout America were watching.
“ESPN’s Saturday draft coverage (Michael Sam) was viewed by 1.96M viewers, up 22 percent over last year’s Rounds 4-7,” tweeted Sports Illustrated reporter Richard Deitsch.
The Miami Dolphins, recently in the headlines for bad PR surrounding Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito’s bullying and racist-charged harassment of fellow teammates, immediately jumped on Jones, who tweeted “Omg” and “horrible” after ESPN showed Sam’s reaction live.Jones was suspended until he completes sensitivity training. Additionally, he deleted the tweets and apologized.
“I regret that these tweets took away from his draft moment. I remember last year when I was drafted in the seventh round and all of the emotions and happiness I felt when I received the call that gave me an opportunity to play for an NFL team and I wish him all the best in his NFL career,” Jones said in his statement.
Jones was not alone, of course. Former Giants running back Derrick Ward tweeted, “Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can’t believe ESPN even allowed that to happen.” And apparently former Ole Miss basketball guard Marshall Henderson announced he is boycotting ESPN for showing the kiss in front of “innocent eyes.”
The kiss crossed over from sports obsession to human condition, making cultural “kisstory.” Sports Illustrated’s Deitsch called it one of ESPN’s best moments of coverage. ESPN host Trey Wingo was describing how Sam would fit into the Rams organization, when he was told about footage taken moments before of Sam receiving the prized phone call from the team’s coach, Jeff Fisher.
“Wingo began to talk over the footage but abruptly pulled out and let the natural sound of Sam’s weeping take over,” Deitsch reported. “Viewers saw Sam’s boyfriend, Vito Cammisano [a former star on the University of Missouri swim team], consoling him and then wiping his own tears. They heard Sam say ‘Yes, sir’ twice and then ‘thank you.’ That was followed by Sam kissing his boyfriend and both men embracing. Then another kiss, more hugs and the raw footage running out. It was unlike anything viewers had ever seen at an NFL draft and remarkable, honest television.”
Wingo turned to analyst Bill Polian, the former Bills and Colts general manager. “One of the great parts of being a GM and head coach in this league is making that call,” Polian said. “You can hear the overwhelming joy and screams and tears, because for the families and players their lifelong dream has come true. … It makes you feel so good to be part of it.”
And Fisher’s assessment of that kisstoric moment? “It wasn’t much,” Fisher said. “He burst into tears, and he was so emotional that he really couldn’t speak. It was a cool moment.”
Now the hard part: Sam has to play well. He will not lack support, to be sure. Already a commemorative number 10 team jersey is the top seller on the Rams website. Best of all, no one can un-see that moment of pure joy—when the hunky new Rams football player kissed his boyfriend and the definition of masculinity changed forever.