Published on February 12th, 2014 | by Andy Frye0
Photo: Parker Anderson (Licensed under CC-by-nd 2.0)
The Michael Sam Announcement and Derby’s Accepting Voice
Roller derby has always been at the cutting edge of the sports world. This is something each and every skater, volunteer or fan has known every day since the first whistle. And for those of us that play the game, it is something we feel every time we tie on skates. Innovation is in our blood.
Not only is this innovation and sharp spirit evident in the way that we have built an international sport without corporate backing in the span of a decade, but it is also evident in the way we think, and the way we value and respect each other. That’s quite an interesting dynamic from a sport whose object is to skate hard and hit your opponent even harder.
One completely natural element of roller derby’s forward-thinking soul is the way we’ve accepted peoples’ differences so easily. In the early days from 1935 on, roller derby shortly became one of the first and few coed sports ever to exist. And now in derby’s second renaissance decade, it is certain that cultural origin, gender, gender preference, gender identity and even skill level are no thought for pause when joining our community. Not to be snooty, but much of the rest of the sports world is still coming along.
We’ve all heard the trending news by now. On Sunday afternoon, Michael Sam, a senior football player at the University of Missouri came out publicly to state that he is gay. Certainly Sam should be commended and supported amply for having the courage to announce to the world without hesitation that he is gay since it was something he saw as important to do. What also makes this news remarkable is that Sam is not just any old football player. Michael Sam was awarded the Southeastern Conference accolade for 2013 Defensive Player of the Year. He’s a hard-hitting star player and one of the lead prospects in the upcoming NFL Draft this spring. And it is very likely that Sam will be the first ever openly gay player in the NFL.
Taking it from another angle however, the fact that a world-class athlete coming out constitutes major news in 2014 is both a little surprising and a little appalling.
The truth is that no matter whether you are a construction worker, a hair stylist, an investment banker or a professional athlete, we live in a society in which you have the right to be who you are without judgment. America should have recognized this and lightened up about sexual preference a long, long time ago. But for whatever reason sports –-probably because of its high level of media attention and focus—has proceeded much more slowly in this realm. Yet it is still encouraging when other sports keep pace and catch the zeitgeists we, as an inclusive sports community, had recognized long ago.
Still, we shudder a little bit every time we hear roller derby talked about in a way that neglects its high level of athleticism and commitment our game demands. Likewise, sports media is never short of hype. Sometimes it is easy to throw other sports and sports subcultures under the bus.
For example, it was only last March that a basketball player from the University of Louisville, the eventual 2013 NCAA champions, busted his leg in a brutal compound fracture on live television. I remember that the news of Kevin Ware’s leg break in a quarterfinal game against Duke was met with some derision by roller derby players I know. Many of us thought about the bumps, bruises and heady risk we expose ourselves to every day when playing roller derby.
“A guy broke his leg playing sports. What’s the big deal?” one derby friend of mine said.
Sure, we get also get a little impatient with the authorities of baseball, football, hockey and basketball –major sports enterprises with huge media and multi-billion dollar revenue streams– when they fail to deal with issues we’ve mastered like simple safety, concussion awareness and gay rights.
But on days like that of the Michael Sam announcement it is important that we not disparage other sports for their slower pace in finding their voice on social issues. Much to the contrary, it was encouraging to see so many derby people posting and sharing stories about Michael Sam coming out on social media. Hell, that’s how I found out about it in the first place. It wasn’t CNN or the NBC Nightly News. Rather it was the derby community doing what it always does, bringing important things we should talk about to the forefront.
As trailblazers in the world of sports, players of roller derby not only should recognize that we have created something new: an international sports phenomenon that is barely over ten years old. As athletes we also have a responsibly to encourage the rest of the sports world to follow our lead, to talk about the issues, but more importantly to value diversity and encourage acceptance of each other in sports, without reservation.
And if you were paying attention this weekend, and probably all along, you know we have done a damn good job so far.