Michael Sam matters, and so does ESPN’s coverage of him

On Monday we found out that the St. Louis Rams chose not to include Michael Sam on their practice squad.

As has become custom, this included a myriad of terrible internet comments. The ESPN story included the same jeers we’ve all heard before. Criticisms of ESPN’s coverage of Sam took the lead, primarily citing Sam’s lack of talent or production, and how the network’s coverage Sam was disproportionate to his relevance.

ESPN has been on the wrong side of social issues pretty frequently recently. Actually, so far as social issues are concerned, they’ve been wrong what seems like every time they have tried to wade into them as topics. Part of this is their version of “gotcha” journalism, another being their desire to compete with guys like Rush Limbaugh, Don Imus, Jon Stewart, and Bill Maher for our respective eyes and ears. ESPN has built a platform in a time when click-baiting is more important than reliable sources.

Regardless of ESPN, though, make no mistake: Michael Sam matters.

Imagine if we had ESPN when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. Even worse, imagine we had internet comments.

“Can you believe ESPN is spending this much time on some negro league player?”

“In other news, a bunch of white baseball players did things today with little fanfare.”

To even suggest that Sam is a trailblazer of similar importance to Jackie Robinson has been criticized quite frequently. Robinson was a great player, and played baseball during a time when social injustice was unrecognizable in a sea of institutional bigotry in this country. That Robinson was a great talent is almost a footnote to his career. His biggest accomplishment was enduring society’s ills at the time, not something that could be quantified with numbers.

But Sam is crusading in an iteration of America that is substantially more progressive, though one doesn’t need to leave the state of Missouri right now to view inequality in coverage from the media, if not mistreatment from the police. America seems to be on the precipice of a rapid acceleration toward gender equality. The chips are stacked in the favor of whoever can become the first extremely relevant male athlete who is also homosexual.

But this assumes that gender issues and sexuality are some sort of new issue. That their ascent to the forefront of America coincides with their conception. Global issues surrounding sexuality have been prevalent for centuries, and in several societies.

It’s not Michael Sam’s fault that he grew up and became prominent in a better version of America. That Robinson did much of the heavy lifting so far as equality is sports are concerned doesn’t render the need for continued progress negligible. And more importantly, that Michael Sam isn’t an insanely talented football player, or that he may never spend substantial time on an active roster doesn’t make homosexuality in professional sports an issue which should be put on the back-burner until another prominent athlete comes out of the closet.

Michael Sam matters, and I for one hope that ESPN continues to cover him. Equality in sports doesn’t have to be born of saviors. It can be born of airtime, and awareness, and society and consumers demanding equality.

Hearing about a seventh round pick that is a fringe roster prospect at best may not be enjoyable for the average sports fan. But if the trade-off is a more tolerant America, it’s well worth it.