I heard his voice before I saw him.
I knew exactly who it was.
“Well, that’s it Spencer! Your last race as a Mizzou Tiger. One hell of a ride, huh?”
The voice belonged to Rick McGuire, the Head Coach of Missouri Track & Field. While Coach had reached elite credentials as a professional sports psychologist, it was his love for his student-athletes and his ability to create an inclusive community that really seemed to make him most proud—and taught so many of us young athletes about leadership.
Now, Coach McGuire always had an inexhaustible, unyielding, and unapologetically positive energy, but today was a unique day for us all, because it was the very last team meet of the season, and like other graduating seniors I had just finished my last race as a Missouri Tiger.
Looking back, I’m sure he had seen lots of young men and women run their last race over the years, and he rightly sensed that I was more than a little sad at the thought of not being a part of the team any longer. So, as I shook his hand and made my way onto the bus, he stopped me and put his hand on my shoulder, and in a very fatherly way, said: “Jimmy, you’ll always be a Tiger. Don’t you forget that.”
These are life-long gifts that I still carry, and seek to share with others in my own ways. Thousands of Missouri Tigers also received these gifts from the community building coach, who also knew a little bit about world-class athletes. So, it’s no surprise that from the first day I arrived in Columbia, Missouri, that Coach worked to set a tone for what it meant to be a Tiger.
We were family, and we were expected to act like it.
His job was to get us to practice that mindset long enough to actually realize it.
That’s why when University of Missouri All-American football player Michael Sam announced that he would be the first openly gay man to enter the NFL Draft I wasn’t shocked to hear his back-story.
Here are 5 brief observations I’ve made regarding teams, society, and Michael Sam’s story:
Sweat, really is our common bond.
It’s no shock that Sam came out to his teammates over a year before the story broke publicly, and not a single one of them said a word. This only happens in an environment of trust. So how can you get that kind of trust?
I’ve learned you don’t get it by talking about it. Sports team bonds are formed during practice. Practice means sweat. Practice means pain. The beauty of this is: sweat becomes our common bond. It’s what helps us begin actually trusting one another.
We have a human team also. When strangers work together in neighborhoods, universities, churches, charities, or businesses they learn that the vast differences that once were steep barriers to trust…well…those differences don’t seem so steep once we’ve sweated alongside one another.
Equality is inherent. On a sports team, everyone has a role. Some bigger. Some smaller. All equal. We all wear the same uniform. It does not matter if you are the star athlete, or a role player. Everyone gets respect and gives respect. Everyone has a place on the team. Teams struggle when privilege gets too out of whack. The same goes for our human team—someday people will realize that every single person on the planet has a base line, inherent worth—and that demands equality.
If the man can run, tackle, be a good locker room presence, and represent the NFL well—then it’s just wrong to deny him the equal opportunity to do that. As Rich Eisen, from NFL Network, tweeted: “if you don’t draft him because he is gay, then I hope he sacks your QB 18, 000 times.” Amen.
Everyone deserves the right to tell their own story. Michael Sam deserves to tell his own story. Not the media. Not Christianity. Not me. Not you. This is a big factor behind his decision to come out when he did. I respect that—the man wants to tell his own story. For too long Christians have been comfortable telling the whole world’s story. Gay folks are tired of it. Black folks too. I’m tired of. You might be too. There are so many beautiful human stories to be told. Let’s not only hear them—let’s respect others right to tell their own story.
This means we each have the same right, and frees us to be whatever we want. Want to be a conservative Christian who believes that being gay is a sin? Great, be that person! You don’t have to be gay! You can love Jesus and be exactly who you think you should be. I would bet that Michael Sam would want that for you. I want that for you. However, you need to extend that important right to others.
We have no right to tell someone else’s story for them.
We have each other’s back. You know what? Life is hard some days. Really hard. Some days, we make it hard on ourselves. Other days, people seem determined to make it hard for us. Teammates know this is normal—and that is why we have to take care of one another. We have to have one another’s back because the path that we are trying to walk is too hard for someone to do it well alone.
I’ve learned that teams can’t function when we act like we are the only ones sacrificing for the common good. I’m proud of how Sam’s Missouri teammates have his back.
Pretty sure, this also applies to society. We have to take care of the most vulnerable on the human team. Children, widows, elderly. We should have their back. When we think of society this way, things like charity and welfare and medical care for everyone, are less likely to make us feel like people are taking from us. We’ll have a higher perspective, and begin to realize there is no them—only us.
We need each other’s diversity. Diversity is our great strength not a weakness.
I’m sure that Sam’s announcement made some teammates uncomfortable at first. At some point, all that work, and sweat, and trust, and listening, and bonding not only leads to equality—but an actual appreciation and celebration of diversity. You can’t have all fast little guys, or giant slow guys—diversity is normal, natural, and necessary…so let’s celebrate it. A good coach leads teams through practices and competitions to get them to realize that their diversity is their strength, not a weakness.
Gay, Black, Liberal, Conservative, Rich, Poor…these things give us each a unique social perspective that is necessary to become a better human team. When we begin to actually celebrate our diversity as humans instead of constantly arguing over differences, and who is ‘right’— then we’ll begin to inch our way toward greatness.
So, Christians, what’s stopping us? Simply, that we’re stuck wanting to be right? Stuck in the idea that we still get to set the rules for all of society? Christians need to get over ourselves, and begin to practice the ways of Jesus by showing respect to others. It’s time we started being better teammates.
It may sound corny, but this is what it means to be an elite athlete. To love one another. Trusting one another. Having each other’s back. To never forget the work we had put in together. The thousands of miles logged together. The victories and upsets we celebrated and the losses and injuries that left us feeling defeated and alone. Along the way we realized that it would take all of us together—working, cheering, leading and following—if we were to reach our potential as elite athletes.
It doesn’t seem much different from building a great society.
When people come together for the good of one another. Sweat together. Have each other’s back. Be willing to recognize the value of others, Give respect. Receive respect. Listen to one another. We’ll grow the faith to celebrate our differences…
When that stuff actually begins to happen…
Then, gay football players won’t be so newsworthy.
Someday soon, there will be a generation of openly gay judges, actors, plumbers, pilots, mechanics, cooks, senators, umpires, teachers, and yes…even football players.
Many of our era’s social issues fall into this same pattern. People in our dominant culture (that’s us white heterosexual, Christian dudes) are currently struggling to value, work alongside, treat equally, and embrace anyone who is different than them. Marginalized people who are gay, or Islamic, transgendered, homeless, female, black, immigrant, Hindu, Asian—or any other group that feels pressure to hide who they are made to be. These people feel the way Michael Sam seems to feel.
They just want to be themselves, openly.
They just want to be a part of our social team.
To equally enjoy the experience of:
My hope for us all is that there will be a millions of people: Islamic, Hindu, Asian, black, brown, women, transgendered, gay, homeless—all different from our current dominant culture—who feel free to openly be themselves and equally a part of our societal team. I’m confident that when that happens, we’ll become a greater social team, a greater human team.
Let’s hope that day comes sooner than later!
Perhaps then, Michael Sam can stop answering questions about sex and sexual orientation— instead he’ll have to answer much tougher questions like:
“Can you stand up in a 4-3 defense, and cover Rob Gronkowski when he streaks down the seam?”
Because that… that is the question his NFL teammates will be most concerned with.
I’m sure Michael Sam will be a great teammate, and that the NFL, and society, will be better for it.
Much love for you brother. I got your back.
Photo Credit: AP