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Did Michael Sam Take A 'Huge Risk' To Come Out Before The Draft?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR news. Now it's time for our weekly visit to the Barbershop, where the guys talk about what's in the news and what's on their minds. Sitting in the chairs for a shape-up this week are writer Jimi Izrael, with us from Cleveland. Pablo Torre, senior writer with ESPN, is with us from New York City. From Boston, Neil Minkoff, health care consultant; he's also a contributor to National Review magazine. And right here in Washington, D.C., Paul Butler. He's a law professor at Georgetown University. But before I hand it over to Jimi, do you mind if I say, happy Valentine's Day to you all 'cause you are all my sweethearts.


PABLO TORRE: Thank you.

NEIL MINKOFF: Thank you.

PAUL BUTLER: Happy Valentine's Day, Michel.

TORRE: Happy Valentine's Day.

JIMI IZRAEL: Thank you. Thank you so much. My heart, it melts. So onward. Hey, fellas, what's up?

BUTLER: What's up.


MINKOFF: What's up.

IZRAEL: Welcome to the shop. All right, well, let's just get it started - college football star Michael Sam, he plays defense, but he's still catching headlines since, you know, he announced he's gay last week. Well, he's gay all the time, but he just announced it last week.


IZRAEL: He's a highly rated defensive lineman, and he's picked - and if he's picked up by the NFL draft, he'll be the first - first openly gay player in the league, and maybe he'll even come to Cleveland. Here's what he said about coming out. Drop the clip, please.


MICHAEL SAM: You know, it's 2014. I can't tell society to agree with this or not to agree with this. But hopefully, society will rally around me and support me, too.

IZRAEL: Yeah, man, that's what's up. Just live your truth, and please come to Cleveland. You know, I...

MARTIN: Just come to Cleveland.

IZRAEL: I'm crazy cool with this. Pablo, is this a big deal?

TORRE: It is because not only is this guy going to be the first openly gay NFL player - who's an active NFL player - but he did it before the draft. And that, to me, you know, still is a huge risk because we don't really know how the NFL is going to react. I think there is, like in society, still a divergence in tolerance. And so to me, it's a huge, humongous deal.

And you see - I mean, the reactions, right? The reactions have spanned the gamut from really positive, which has been heartwarming to see, and right and justified; and also, guys who are still like, you know, well, I'm uncomfortable about being in the shower with a guy who is openly gay. Well, here's what Michael Sam is telling you - that not only did he go an entire season at Missouri as an out gay man to his teammates, and they still were successful - he still was this very decorated player - but these are also guys who are already in the league.

So if your discomfort at that is actual discomfort, you're basically asking a lot of guys to privilege your discomfort over the pain of being in the closet. And Michael Sam is suddenly opening people's eyes more and more to that.

MARTIN: You know, it's interesting - Pablo was talking about the fact that there are these divergents from points of views, you cannot help but notice that his stock has reportedly dropped on the draft prospect boards, and some people are asking whether it was a mistake for him to come out before the draft.

So Pablo, maybe you want to talk about that. But to the other end of the equation, there have been people like this sports anchor - Dale Hansen - who had an on-air response to Sam's critics, which went viral this week. I'll just play a clip of that 'cause it kind of captures what it is that Pablo was talking about.


DALE HANSEN: You beat a woman and drag her down a flight of stairs pulling her hair out by the roots, you're the fourth guy taken in the NFL Draft. You kill people while driving drunk, that guy's welcome. Players caught in hotel rooms with illegal drugs and prostitutes, we know they're welcome. Players accused of rape and pay the woman to go away, you lie to police trying to cover up a murder - we're comfortable with that. You love another man? Well, now, you've gone too far.


MARTIN: So interesting. So I did want to ask - do you mind if I ask, Jimi, Pablo, just really briefly is that - this whole thing of how him sort of dropping on the prospect boards, is that real?

TORRE: Yeah, I mean, look, we have to do the hard job of divorcing the positive sentiment we might have about a player for his courage and his bravery and what he actually does on the field. And that's more of an empirical question. But I can tell you that the things that NFL teams hate the most, more than guys really getting in trouble with the law, for example, is the notion of being a distraction and not having control over your players.

And to this day still, you know, because it's the first test case, we wonder is that going to be a red flag for Michael Sam? Right now, it seems like based on previous history, based on the fact that this is isn't a universal, unanimous embracing, that there will be some of that, yeah, unfortunately.

MARTIN: What do you think about that, Paul?

BUTLER: That's disappointing, but I'm encouraged about this as an important moment for the African-American community. If you think about the prominent people who've come out in the last year, a lot of them have been black - Robin Roberts, Jason Collins, Frank Ocean. Last week, the president nominated Darrin Gayles, a friend of mine, who'll be the first openly gay, black federal judge - black, male, federal judge. So I hope this makes people stop thinking about the black community as homophobic.

A fun fact, a federal judge yesterday decided that the law against gay marriage in Virginia is unconstitutional, that gay people there have the right to get married. That judge is an African-American woman, and she cited the case that said - that miscegenation laws that said interracial marriage in Virginia were unconstitutional, She said it's not the same thing, but it's the same love. And I think that's a great message on Valentine's Day. I like when black people embrace who they are. So it's a proud moment for the African-American community as well as the LGBT committee.

IZRAEL: Oh, Paul, stop it. You're making me misty. Dr. Neil, your take, please.

MINKOFF: Oh, yeah, absolutely. So first of all, mad props. I mean, I think that the fact that the guy came out before the draft is huge. There were two things that I found kind of - I guess sad about the story, the way it came out. One is that, you know, when questioned further about it, it sounded like he was coming out not because it was something he felt he had to do for himself, or he felt he had to do for equality or for rights, but that he wanted to control the news getting out; and he didn't want it to leak and become a distraction.

I thought that was very unfortunate. And then all the news reports about the - his upbringing, and his father needing to go drink at Applebee's when he found out his son was gay. That, I thought, was just - there was just something about that that really touched a nerve with me.

IZRAEL: That struck me as a very human reaction. I'm sorry. I mean, we're not all - we didn't all pop out the womb, you know, progressive and, you know, with the right politics of the time, you know? I mean, it was an honest reaction. And as a father - and my oldest son is gay - it didn't take me to the bar to drink, it didn't take me anywhere.

I mean, I DJ-ed in a gay bar for four years of my DJ career. So when he came out to me, I was just like, oh, dude; like duh; like, you haven't told me anything new. But I get the honest reaction. So I'm OK with it. At least he didn't try to come off, you know, with the PC reaction du jour. I mean, he was honest, and he's dealing with it and processing it in his way. So, you know, don't hang the guy out to dry.

MARTIN: Well, the other thing that impressed me about this young man was one of the points that he made is that he's already had a lot of challenges in his life. He had an older brother who was killed; he had another brother who disappeared under, you know, strange circumstances, and he and his sister were the last people to see him alive. And he said look, I've already dealt with things. This is just - this is my life, this is not - you know what I mean? He just evinced a level of maturity that I think a lot of people would like to see. I do want to clarify one point, dad says he's been misquoted on the reaction, so I - you know, I don't know. I mean, sometimes that's - but you know, one other bit of football news, Pablo?

TORRE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Can you just bring us up to date? You know, we've also covered this whole issue around the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal that Jonathan Martin, this young player, said that he was kind of the target of some really racist and just really just disturbing harassment that kind of went well beyond the typical, you know, freshman or, you know, rookie hazing that is apparently, you know, common. He said it went well beyond this; it went into his second year. The NFL asked attorney Ted Wells to investigate on this, and they've just - he's just issued his report. What did they tell us?

TORRE: Yeah, well, that it wasn't a cover-up by Jonathan Martin - that the abuse was not this, you know, boy crying wolf in order to mask some other reason for his departure from the team. And in the context, you know, of the Michael Sam case, we should point out that there is a definite, progressive culture shift in the NFL. A lot of payers, a lot of teams - much in the way that society is getting better about this - are getting better about this.

But there are unfortunate situations like this. And I think about it like high schools. You have some social groups, some high schools that are ruled, unfortunately, by bullies, by jerks; guys who will use homophobic language, racial slurs, all of which was confirmed in the Ted Wells report that came out. And unfortunately, Michael Sam, you know, hopefully he goes to a good team, hopefully a team that has mature people with non-dysfunctional workplaces. Those do exist, but this is another big black eye for the NFL.

MARTIN: But what are you saying? You're saying that they did, in fact, find that the harassment - what Jonathan Martin reported as harassment - does in fact meet that standard, that it wasn't just kind of typical or friendly hazing that was equivalent?

TORRE: Exactly right.

MARTIN: Because Richie Incognito, who was the target of this, he argued that Martin gave as good as he got, and that he had no way of knowing that he was offended by this...

TORRE: Right.

MARTIN: ...because they were just joshing each other, and it was all equal. And you're saying that the report said that's not true.

TORRE: The report independently found that not only was it Jonathan Martin, it was another offensive lineman who was subject to homophobic slurs, there was an Asian-American assistant trainer who was subject racial slurs. And the Incognito thing is, unfortunately, sometimes the people doing the bullying don't realize what they're doing. And maybe that's the most generous interpretation of Richie Incognito right now, but it doesn't mask the consequences of his actions.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are having our weekly Barbershop roundtable. We're joined by writer Jimi Izrael, contributor to the National Review Neil Minkoff, law professor Paul Butler and sports writer Pablo Torre - that's who was speaking just now. Back to you, Jimi.

IZRAEL: Thanks, Michel. OK, well, Supreme Court's justice Clarence Thomas wants people to stop being so sensitive about race. Aw, isn't that sweet. So, you know, the conservative African-American, he spoke at Florida College this week and said he's so sad because people today are, quote, more race and different conscious than I was in the 1960s, when I went to school, unquote. Paul Butler, P, Prince Paul, you're a legal man, what do you make of Thomas' comments?

BUTLER: Jimi, I've tried so hard to give Clarence Thomas the benefit of the doubt, in part because he has the reputation of being the nicest Supreme Court Justice for visitors to the court. And he especially goes out of his way when there are groups of African-American students. So I think that's kind of cool.

And there are a lot of progressive legal scholars called critical race theorists who say in some ways things were better back during Jim Crow. Actually I hear Kenny Gamble just say that in the earlier segment, that black radio was better back in the day. So, you know, folks say that blacks had their own businesses, professionals stayed in the community, we didn't think that white ice was colder than black ice, the way some of us do now.

IZRAEL: Right.

BUTLER: So I get all that, but I'm concerned - the only African-American on the highest court in the land just has this fundamental misunderstanding of race and racism. So I don't see how he can judge civil rights cases, voting rights cases, school desegregation cases.

MARTIN: What's his misunderstanding, briefly, if you could?

BUTLER: So he doesn't get the way that white supremacy, to be real about it, impacts the lives of people walking on the street. If I get on an elevator and some woman clutches - or some man - clutches their purse, that's not me being oversensitive, that's because of the way that people think about race in this country.

MARTIN: Neil, what do you think about this? Because this is one of those points that I think that the National Review often has that perspective itself. I mean, that is a common meme of the conservative press. So...

MINKOFF: Yeah, I think that's true. I think that coming to a white guy from Main about race relations may not be the most obvious fount of wisdom here. I filter Clarence Thomas' remarks through this about some of the things that have been said about him being called an Uncle Tom, being denigrated - potentially denigrated - somebody said they were misquoted about it's not right that he's married to a white woman etc. So, you know, I think that maybe some of that hypersensitivity is because of his own personal - what's happened to him since he's become famous as opposed to what happened to him when he was a child.

MARTIN: Well, isn't that projecting then? I mean, he's projecting his own hypersensitivity onto other people then? I mean, is that the case? You see my point? And besides, I disagree - if you don't mind I'll take the privilege...

MINKOFF: No, of course.

MARTIN: And just disagree that you have nothing to say about race because, you know, being white is a race. I mean, you have every right to have - participate in this conversation.

BUTLER: That's right.

IZRAEL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And I really wish we could dispel this notion that only certain people are privileged to speak about this issue, you know. Your experiences are as valid as anybody else's and so is your perspective.

MINKOFF: Oh, no - and I appreciate that. It's just when you come from a place like Maine - I think my high school had something like 1,600 student and three of us were Jewish and there was one black family. Race isn't a big part of day-to-day life, the way it is when you move to a much more urban or much more integrated area. And so it actually was something - learning to interact like that was something I had to do as an adult, rather than as a child, and it changes one's perspective.

IZRAEL: All right.

MARTIN: Jimi? Jimi, what do you think?

IZRAEL: I think Clarence Thomas, he has kind of a blind spot about all matters of race, and he's had it for as long as I've been paying attention to him, which is a bit of time. But I'm also still back on the white man's ice, I guess I got to go ahead and order some of that, but...


IZRAEL: But, I mean, his remarks about race often fall flat. I don't give them any weight what so ever.

MARTIN: How come? Because some people find that puzzling - they think, well, here's a very distinguished person so - you know, why don't you?

IZRAEL: I think...

MARTIN: That's - I mean, that is a point of view. I can tell you that we will get that mail. People will say, well, why don't people give him more credit for his views on this matter given his position and his accomplishments?

IZRAEL: I think it's a complicated intraracial discussion that sometimes when black people get so far outside of the center of our communities, be they black middle-class or black upper-class, that they develop these opinions about race that they - I mean, they suggest - they talk to themselves and they talk themselves into believing that race doesn't exist because they've reached a certain place and way they're living must be the way everybody else is living or should be living. It's kind of like the Cosby theory about race - it's like, well, I'm living up here in the nice sweaters and eating Jell-O pudding pops, why don't you ...


IZRAEL: ...And do something with your life. You know, so - like that.

MARTIN: Well, put. Well, I'll just say why - I would also - would just sort of add briefly that I think that there's just this peculiar phenomenon where people are validated by one group of people because they reflect their point of view and then expect other people to, and that's kind of a part of privilege too, isn't it?

IZRAEL: Right.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of blind spots, just very, very briefly, you guys saw the tape of that LA anchor who confused Samuel L. Jackson - apparently confused Samuel...

IZRAEL: He did not.

MARTIN: So did he confuse him or didn't he for actor Laurence Fishburne? This thing went so viral. I'm sorry, we just have to play a little bit of it.


MARTIN: Just 20 seconds of it - it went on longer than that, but here it is.


SAM RUBIN: Did you get a lot of reaction to that Super Bowl commercial?

SAMUEL L. JACKSON: What Super Bowl commercial?

RUBIN: Oh, you know what, my mistake. I - you know...

JACKSON: You know what - see - I'm not Laurence Fishburne.

RUBIN: That's my fault. I know that. That was my fault. My mistake.

JACKSON: I'm the other guy. The other one. What's in your wallet? More than one black guy doing a commercial.

MARTIN: So Jimi - go ahead. Weigh on this - you've got the only word on this. What?

IZRAEL: In some markets, both the Capital One and the KIA commercial both ran on during that broadcast. So, I mean, he - so Sam just kind of jumped on that guy and he shouldn't have jumped on that guy the way he did. But that guy, he got caught, he got caught out there and - oh, well. Oh, well. It's just a wash, but, no, I don't think made the mistake, I just think Sam didn't know that both commercials ran in some markets.

MARTIN: So is he oversensitive?

IZRAEL: Yes. Sam Jackson oversensitive about race? You must M-effin kidding. I think so, maybe.

MARTIN: And you meant, by that, Milky Way or something like that.

IZRAEL: Right, right. That's exactly what I meant.

MARTIN: I know you did not just try to cuss on my air. I know you did not.

IZRAEL: No, of course not.

MARTIN: OK. OK. Well, people always confuse you for Idris Elba, right?


IZRAEL: All the time, all the time.

TORRE: Cleveland's Idris Elba...

MARTIN: All right. That's our program for today. Jimi Izrael is a writer and adjunct professor of film and social media. And you can find his blog at jimiizrael.com. He was with us from WCPN in Cleveland. Pablo Torre is a senior writer for ESPN, joined us from our NPR bureau in New York. Neil Minkoff is a health care consultant and contributor to National Review, with us from Boston. Paul Butler is a law professor at Georgetown University, with us from Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much.

TORRE: Thank you.

BUTLER: Woof, woof.

MINKOFF: Yeah, yeah, yeah.


MARTIN: And remember, if you can't get enough Barbershop buzz on the radio, look for our Barbershop podcast in the iTunes Store or at NPR.org. That's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more on Monday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.