Bob Franken: Of closets and lockers

Do you know what’s really sad each time someone public declares that he or she is coming out of the closet? What’s so wrong is that we still have closets. Thus it was with the big announcement by University of Missouri All-American defensive lineman Michael Sam that he is gay.


Stories erupted everywhere in the mainstream media and certainly the not-so-mainstream Internet outlets. Even President Barack Obama weighed in with his backing. Justifiably so. And regrettably so. After all, Sam had become the first active player to give up his “secret” (actually, it was no secret to his teammates, who knew and enthusiastically embraced him as a member of the locker room). He also was getting ready to be selected in the NFL draft. That brings us to why we even have a closet.

Interspersed with the many enlightened statements of support from professional athletes and others involved in sports, including one notable Dallas sportscaster, were the guys who expressed their disapproval, both the open bigots and those who were anonymously predicting that Sam’s value would fall in the upcoming draft as he tried to go pro, or as they like to say, “participate at the next level.” They worried that he would “disrupt a locker room.”

Next level? Disrupt a locker room? What a delicious coincidence that a new report just came out that detailed the grotesque sexist, homophobic, cruel bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room that caused 300-plus-pound lineman Jonathan Martin to flee the team. He’s not gay, by the way.

Obviously, an argument can be made that not all jocks are the brightest bulbs. But, they’re not the only ones who cling to ignorance. Once again, another federal judge has had to make a ruling that simply ratifies what should be a given, that in the United States, we have a right to “equal protection under the law.” In the latest case, Judge Arenda L. Wright Allen acted to strike down a prohibition against gay marriage, this time in the Commonwealth of Virginia. “Tradition is revered in the Commonwealth, and often rightly so,” she wrote. “However tradition alone cannot justify denying same-sex couples the right to marry any more than it could justify Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage.”

We don’t need to dwell on Virginia’s genteel history of ugly discrimination and worse. What’s interesting today is the response we hear each and every time another jurist throws out a gay-marriage ban. It is identical to the one that was common in the 1960s, when racial prejudice was enshrined in the law. The head of an organization called the National Organization for Marriage accused the judge of “twisting the Constitution and the rule of law to impose her own views of marriage in defiance of the people of Virginia.”

It’s the same states’ rights discredited argument that was made in favor of Jim Crow laws a generation ago. By design, there is tension between the authority of the states and federal government, but the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land” and no lesser jurisdiction can undermine its core principles.

Appropriately, it will be the U.S. Supreme Court that decides this one, but let’s be honest: The justices are just fallible human beings whose rulings are clouded, if not distorted, by their own cultural prejudices and ideologies. So even with broad popular support and with the obvious equality arguments, it’s not a sure thing at all that fairness and tolerance will prevail in the majority’s opinion.

But that’s down the road. As a society we need to use the growing acceptance of gay marriage to make the legal rulings irrelevant. Inevitably, it will become unnecessary for anyone to bother announcing his or her sexual preferences. Someone sarcastically might say, “Thank you for sharing,” but that’s it. At that point, the athletes who follow Michael Sam can just focus on the locker room instead of the closet.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.


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