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NFL draft Michael Sam: Just a kiss, and more than a kiss

updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue May 13, 2014
Swimmer Ian Thorpe, seen here in 2004 with one of his five Olympic gold medals, told an Australian news outlet that he is gay in an interview that aired on Sunday, July 13. Click through to see other openly gay athletes. Swimmer Ian Thorpe, seen here in 2004 with one of his five Olympic gold medals, told an Australian news outlet that he is gay in an interview that aired on Sunday, July 13. Click through to see other openly gay athletes.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peggy Drexler: Change doesn't happen instantly and not everybody is ready for it
  • John Sutter: Vile reaction to the kiss shows gay people aren't truly accepted
  • Sally Kohn: Get over it: Gay people kiss because kissing people you love is normal
  • Craig James: It was wrong for NFL to punish Don Jones for speaking his mind

(CNN) -- Michael Sam over the weekend became the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. When he got the news by phone, Sam kissed his boyfriend, and it was aired on television. Reactions were mixed and vocal, with some calling the kiss historic and positive and others condemning it as inappropriate for children to see.

CNN Opinion has rounded up some viewpoints on that kiss, which you'll find below. The opinions expressed in these commentaries are solely those of the authors.

First openly gay player drafted in NFL

Drexler: Not everybody is ready for it

In a few short months, Michael Sam went from being the first openly gay NFL draft hopeful to being the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL. He reacted to the news with understandable excitement, planting a kiss on his boyfriend's lips as aired by ESPN. The negative feedback was not far behind, most notably from his future league-mates, who tweeted opinions such as "OMG" and "horrible" and "no bueno for doing that on national TV."

Peggy Drexler
Peggy Drexler

It's easy to worry that these attitudes are representative of those held throughout the NFL. They very well may be. At the same time, these reactions are also understandable -- and entirely predictable. Social norms change more quickly than people. Sam's coming out was a big deal, and he was ready for it. Many people welcome the idea of a gay player in the NFL. But that doesn't mean everyone welcomes it, or is ready for it, or knows the proper way to react to it. To be surprised that some players had negative reactions to Sam's draft kiss is naïve.

So, what to do about those reactions? Should players be fined, suspended and sent to social media training, as Miami Dolphins player Don Jones has? It depends on what we're after. The reaction to Jones seems directed at punishing him for making his thoughts public, not having them in the first place. What he needs isn't social media training but life training.

He's not entirely to blame for this: Professional athletes are put on a different track than the rest of society. They work hard and are talented, but they are sheltered and they often come into a lot of money quickly. They don't have an opportunity to grow and experience people different from themselves, and as such may be even slower to adjust to new norms.

But the important thing is that people are adjusting, if slowly. And that's OK. Real growth happens when a shift in thinking is genuinely understood and accepted, and not when it's forced. Progress does not need to be instant to signify a change in course.

Peggy Drexler is the author of "Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family" and "Raising Boys Without Men." She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College of Cornell University.

Sutter: It's more than just a kiss

Last year I spent some time with an open lesbian couple in rural Mississippi as they were planning a commitment ceremony.

John D. Sutter
John D. Sutter

One of their worries -- the kiss.

Their mother planned to attend the ceremony in Florida to show her love for her daughter. But when it came time for her little girl to kiss another woman, she told me, she planned to avert her eyes. "It's a strange thing to me," she said.

The couple knew something the rest of the country only woke up to this weekend when NFL draftee Michael Sam celebrated by -- gasp! -- kissing his boyfriend: Polls may indicate increasing tolerance for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, but homophobia is still a very present force in America. It just hides until moments like Sam's smooch.

The vile reaction to the kiss shouldn't be pushed aside and ignored. That people in 2014 think two men kissing is gross and inappropriate for children is telling. We must push for legal equality for LGBT people -- for marriage equality, yes, and also laws that protect people from being fired because of their sexual orientation. But we can't rest until LGBT people aren't just tolerated but are actually accepted. If gay people were really accepted and embraced by the public at large, this kiss would be cute, not gross.

That it made so many people cringe is sad and telling.

It's a sign there's much work to be done.

John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and creator of CNN's Change the List project.

James: It's your free speech right to be critical of kiss

Craig James
Craig James

As a former NFL player, I'm disappointed with the NFL's handling of the Michael Sam situation. Sam has the freedom to make his own personal choices. At the same time, if Don Jones -- who tweeted "OMG" and "horrible" after the kiss -- is motivated by his religious beliefs to hold a different opinion, he has the same freedom to be upfront about his beliefs. (Jones was fined and barred from team activities till he undergoes educational training.)

Is the NFL's new motto: "Don't think, don't speak"?

If Jones made statements that are part of his religious beliefs, then the NFL absolutely cannot take action against him to denigrate those beliefs. I was fired from my job as a TV sports analyst because of my religious beliefs about marriage. I know what Don Jones is going through.

But this cannot be a one-side-always-loses game. Sam deserves to be judged on the merits of his game and so does Jones. No one should be punished for holding religious beliefs about marriage, one way or the other. Fox Sports publicly and maliciously went after me because of my religious beliefs. If tolerance is to mean anything at all, it must mean that Michael Sam, Don Jones and I can be free to be Christians or otherwise, and speak our minds.

Craig James, a former New England Patriot, is an assistant to the president at the Family Research Council.

Kohn: Get over it, it's normal to kiss someone you love

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

Every morning, when my daughter climbs into our bed to wake us up at some insane hour, I lean over and kiss my partner. My daughter is there, watching.

This is not a shock to her, she has two moms, and just like all the kids with a mom and a dad or two dads or just a mom or just grandparents, my daughter thinks her family is both perfectly normal and perfectly wonderful. And by the way, on the street, at school fairs, when other children come over to our house, we don't hide our affection. We act just like every other couple and every other set of parents do. Why the hell wouldn't we?

When Michael Sam heard over the phone that he had been drafted to the NFL, he did what any other normal human being would do -- he kissed his lover. But because Sam's lover is another guy, some folks -- including other football players -- are upset. Mysteriously, men who dress up in tights and huddle together and routinely slap each other's rear ends are uncomfortable with guy-on-guy affection. It's 2014, people. A majority of Americans support gay rights and marriage equality. If two guys kissing can make hulking male athletes and sports fans feel so insecure about their own masculinity and heterosexuality, that's not Sam's problem.

Get over it. Gay people kiss because kissing the people you love is normal. What's not normal is attacking and insulting others for just being who they are.

Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator, progressive activist and columnist.

Loh: A salute to ESPN

Does society influence the media's coverage, or does the media influence trends in society? It's always been a chicken-egg sort of cycle.

Stefanie Loh
Stefanie Loh

From that standpoint, you have to salute ESPN for broadcasting Michael Sam's historic moment. The network took its cue from the gay rights movement that's slowly transforming the country, and gave it one big push in the right direction.

Sam broke down in tears while on the phone with the St. Louis Rams as he learned he'd just been drafted. Then, just as so many newly minted NFL players had done before him, he turned and kissed his partner.

In that instant, even as Sam made history for becoming the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL -- the most macho of all professional sports -- ESPN sent the message that it mattered, but it didn't. By staying with the footage instead of cutting away as soon as Sam kissed his boyfriend, the network showed that gay love is no different from straight love.

Can you imagine the effect that kiss had on the thousands of young, closeted gay children who live in parts of this country where they're forced to feel ashamed of who they are?

Never mind the blowback ESPN got and the negative nonsense on Twitter that mirrored the thoughts of Miami Dolphins defensive back Don Jones, who tweeted "OMG" and "horrible" in response to the footage.

This is the new normal, and moments such as these can change the perceptions of an entire generation. One day soon, athletes coming out will no longer be a story, and no one will need to be told that it's "OK to be gay."

Stefanie Loh is a sportswriter for the UT San Diego, formerly the San Diego Union-Tribune.

Schwartz: Players get nervous about 'sexualization' of team

Pepper Schwartz
Pepper Schwartz

When Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend, he was making a statement about full equality. Not just tolerance -- equality. Tolerance would mean that people knew he was gay and they hoped to just forget about it. Making a statement about equality means that he gets to act like everyone else does. And what do most overjoyed draftees to the NFL do?

They hug their mother or father or kiss their wife or girlfriend. Sam just followed the tradition, and by doing so said nothing less than equal is OK by me.

It's brave. Homophobia -- a really strong, angry, sometimes violent reaction to homosexuality -- is diminishing, but it grows in some places just as effectively as if it were in petri dish. Get outside of universities and go into the world of contact sports and the climate for gay men gets distinctly chillier.

You might think that anywhere that men triumph because they are big and strong and ubermasculine that homosexuality would be less threatening. But it goes the other way.

Men who feel they have proved themselves as men now have to include the idea that someone in the line, the shower or in the huddle is a man who loves another man -- and this is a tough idea for these guys to deal with. Why?

Well for one thing, they have had to desexualize all that rump slapping, hugging and jumping all over each other so there was no "taint" on their behavior. To do so, they regularly make fun of each other for anything that could even appear to be gay just to make sure their heterosexual credentials were intact. These men have figured out ways to maintain machismo even with close contact.

But now there's a gay guy in their midst and, for some of them, it may call into question whether their environment is sexualized by his presence. Of course, this is not so, but they will have to rethink previous feelings.

Like patients who have to figure out that a doctor who sees naked people all the time can treat them without sexualizing them, these guys will have to understand that Sam's sexuality does not threaten or involve them. For some NFL players who have spent a lifetime demonizing homosexuality, this is a tall order.

Still, I bet these guys will adapt quickly: Michael Sam is there to play football, and his talent will ultimately make him welcome, or not. He is also there to be a human being with equal rights. The hope is once the league gets used to him as a player and a person, the fear and anger responses will subside and eventually disappear.

Pepper Schwartz is professor of sociology at the University of Washington and the author or co-author of 19 books, the latest of which is "The Normal Bar."

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