Let us first address the glaring issue: “spade” is a derogatory racial term used to describe black people in the United States in the post-Civil War era. It’s no longer openly used in mainstream culture because of the gigantic strides made in civil rights since then.
Gigantic strides. Black people are no longer considered 3/5ths of a white male, land ownership is permitted, and the United States has a president who is half-black. Well above the “one drop rule” line marking someone as black.
However, there are still huge measures needed to take the US and the world forward to an era of true civil rights equality. When Richard Sherman went on his epic tirade following the Seattle Seahawks’ NFC Championship win over the San Francisco 49ers, he was labeled a “thug” and derided by a public who assumed his outburst was the raging of a brutish, mindless black man. In reality, Richard Sherman is a Stanford graduate (a school that can be considered fairly prestigious if you’re into that sort of scholastic notoriety), and considered to be one of the most cerebral players in the game by those in the know. Would Richard Sherman have been labeled a “thug” if he looked like Wes Welker?
Enter Mario Balotelli. A black man born in Palermo, Italy to Ghanaian parents. If he was born in the US, we would call him an American. In Italy, he didn’t become a “real” Italian till his 18th birthday due to antiquated immigration laws and an outdated system. Subjected to racial abuse his entire career, Balotelli has made his name in spectacular fashion due to his otherworldly talent and equally headline-grabbing volatility on and off the pitch. From setting fireworks off in a bathroom to a match-winning performance against Germany in the semis of Euro 2012, Mario Balotelli earned his mention in TIME’s 100 most influential list.
So when this rugged, 6’2″, 200 lb hulk of a striker was substituted against Napoli and sat on the bench crying, much of the world immediately assumed racism was the cause.
By all reports, there was NO racism in the stadium that day. Said AC Milan manager Clarence Seedorf (a black Dutchman with 10 years experience in Italy),
“We are players and there are times when we express ourselves that way. I see nothing wrong or abnormal in that. I experienced it at times too.”
So what prompted the tears? Was it Balotelli’s recent discovery that he’s the father of a newborn baby girl? Was it the fact that AC Milan is his childhood favorite club and he endured a torrid time in a crucially important game for i Rossoneri? Or could it possibly be that this black man was complex enough to feel all those emotions at the same time and it was too much for him to bear in the moment?
Michael Sam now makes his way into the picture. Michael Sam is a 6’2″, 255 lb defensive lineman who plays one of the most violent sports in the world in the top college conference in the country. Michael Sam is the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Michael Sam is a first-team All-SEC selection, and only the second Missouri Tiger to ever earn a unanimous All-American call. Michael Sam is also gay.
When Michael Sam announced his sexuality, the football and sports world predictably exploded. With his entrance into the NFL in the 2014/15 seasons, he will become the first openly gay man to play in the United States’ most popular sport. Ever.
This is a very big deal. This is along the lines of Jackie Robinson’s entrance into Major League Baseball big deal. Though Jackie Robinson fought both incredibly daunting legal and social battles, Michael Sam’s entrance into the NFL is very similarly important to the civil rights movement. It’s a huge deal. But it shouldn’t be.
Not because what Michael Sam is doing is not revolutionary. Not because what he’s done has taken an immense amount of intestinal fortitude. But because it shouldn’t matter. Michael Sam came out to his teammates last August, they gave him their full backing.
“They supported me from Day One. I couldn’t have better teammates,” Sam said. “I’m telling you what: I wouldn’t have the strength to do this today if I didn’t know how much support they’d given me this past semester.”
As they should have. In a sport that is notoriously testosterone-driven, Chris Kluwe gave evidence of the pervasive anti-gay discriminatory attitude that’s not abnormal throughout the league. However, as many pro athletes have come out to say, Sam’s sexual orientation should not matter. What should matter is how good he is at football.
It should matter how good Mario Balotelli is at football. It should matter how good Richard Sherman is at American football. Not whether or not they’re black and play football. Or gay and play football. Let’s call a spade a spade. Richard Sherman being named a “thug” is another form of discrimination. The interpretation of Mario Balotelli’s tears as due to racial abuse, and not for playing poorly is a form of discrimination. Michael Sam being famous for being gay, not for being an All-American defensive end is a form of discrimination. And it needs to go away.
This article originally featured on Soccer Without Limits