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A question of courage

The ESPY Awards were given out this week.  For those not up on athletic award shows, the ESPY’s or the Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly are ESPN network’s special night for professional sports.

I‘ve always felt that with the huge paycheques received by nationally recognized athletes, there is a greater responsibility than for other celebrities.  Actors portray someone else.  So while their behaviour is often, and sometimes unfortunately, emulated by young people, most of us understand the difference between who they are and who they play.

Athletes, however, are what they do.  They inspire young and old alike because they are pushing the boundaries of human abilities.  Like the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, top athletes have always represented the physical greatness of mankind.

During this year’s show, football player Michael Sam received the “Arthur Ashe Courage Award” simply for admitting that he was gay.  Despite unidentified NFL insiders claiming that professional football is not ready for homosexual players, Sam acknowledged his sexual orientation and became the first openly gay player in the NFL.  Note the term “openly gay” because there are undoubtedly more hiding in the locker room.

Sam’s an impressive man.  He’s a game-changer, risking his career and facing down all the stereotypes associated with being a big, burly, young, black athlete.  And he’s taken his status as a role model very seriously, claiming, “My responsibility at this moment in history is to stand up for everybody out there who wants nothing more than to be themselves openly.”

That’s a sports celebrity we should emulate: strength, courage, honesty, and integrity.

And yet, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat saddened that he received this award.  That he would earn a standing ovation simply for acknowledging his sexual orientation.

Being yourself, shouldn’t be such a big deal.  It should be automatic.  As adults, we teach this to our children.  So why can’t we accept it from each other?

Whatever the reason, we’re years away from total tolerance.  Consequently, many celebrities both in and out of sports are now coming out as a way of showing strength and solidarity to those still in hiding.  If discrimination, ignorance, and blatant bigotry are going to end, a portion of the population who for many years were ignored, beaten, hospitalized or worse are going to have to be as vocal as those who fought during the civil rights movement.  I get that.

But when I think about sports, I remember how we played during recess and gym class.  Sports was about exercise, skill development, leadership, and working together.  Not sexuality. 

At its core, it still isn’t.  And yet, we’ve made it so.

Sexual orientation has nothing to do with how one throws a ball, runs a play or treats fellow human beings.  Unfortunately, it still has very much to do with how one is treated by others.

So the question is: If we applaud Michael Sam, do we have the courage to change the game too?

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