Ryan Clark says players may be uneasy around Michael Sam

Nov 17, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers free safety Ryan Clark (25) reacts after recovering a fumble against the Detroit Lions during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. The Pittsburgh Steelers won 37-27. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of former Missouri Tigers defensive end Michael Smith coming out as gay, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark went on ESPN’s SportsCenter to discuss how Smith may be treated in an NFL locker room.

Per Pro Football Talk:

You want to know how you can behave around this person. Anyone who has been in a football locker room knows that there’s a lot of jokes, a lot of ribbing.  We’ll talk about anything.  If a guy is fat.  If a guy is ugly.  If a guy’s significant other is not attractive.  These are things you josh each other about and you talk with each other about.  In what ways can you talk to him?  In what ways can you involve him in your conversations?  What are the things you can do and say around him that won’t make him uncomfortable?  That won’t make him feel that he’s being ostracized?  Or that won’t make him feel like he’s being harassed or quote, unquote bullied?

Oh boy. There’s a lot to unpack here.

(Note: This is not meant to be a criticism of Clark, only a look at the type of cultural attitude his comments are indicative of.)

To begin, can we please do away with the whole notion that gay people are extra-sensitive bundles of Feelings? Yes, there is indeed a lot of “ribbing” that goes on in locker rooms, and the concern over whether Smith could handle such joshing is misplaced. Smith’s sexuality has no bearing on his capacity to handle being teased, and just because he’s gay doesn’t mean everyone must tread on eggshells around him.

The problem of how not to “make him feel that he’s being ostracized” has a simple solution: don’t be a homophobic asshole! Problem solved! Clark’s comments fit into an all-too-common fallacy you see trotted out by people living in irrational fear of the PC Police: If some words, insults, and phrases are off limits, then is EVERYTHING off limits?! How can we know what’s okay and what isn’t?!

Listen, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out how not to be a jerk. People like to pretend the line between teasing and bullying is blurry because doing so perpetuates the culture where mistreating others is acceptable. If the line is considered poorly defined, it can repeatedly be crossed, and the ensuing conversation can thus be about the concept of the line — questioning where it should be, who gets to draw it, when and how the line can shift, etc. — as opposed to about the offensive or harmful things that were actually said. By treating the line between teasing and bullying as a difficult concept, one can shed all responsibilities regarding civility and decorum.

If players are truly concerned about offending Sam with their joking, then they can — novel idea alert! — actually talk with Sam about it. The idea that Sam would be this alien and unknowable force in the locker room is ridiculous. The best way to guarantee you don’t come across as bigoted — besides, well, using an ounce of common sense — is to make the step to actively learn about the perspectives of people different from you. The way Clark presents the situation, though, paints a weird picture where Sam is in no way consulted or brought into the fold of the team, remaining instead on the outside while everyone blurts out their jokes and crosses their fingers in hopes that nothing said is deemed “offensive.”

You’ll hear a lot of talk in the upcoming weeks about how Sam may or may not be able to “fit” into “locker room culture,” and most of that talk will be bullshit. You’ll probably see NFL locker rooms presented as these unchanging entities where entrenched attitudes — what can be said, how one player can talk to another, etc. — are treated as sacrosanct because “that’s just the way things are.” The integration of Sam, or a player like him, into the established culture will be painted as task so complex and Herculean that some GMs will deem it not worth the effort (keep lookout for the word “distraction”). Easy solutions will be ignored in favor of tired conversations, and people will spew anything they can to ensure the dominant cultural attitudes remain in power.

It doesn’t — and shouldn’t — have to be that way.

[Source: Pro Football Talk]

Topics: Michael Sam, Ryan Clark

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