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Venkataraman: Fostering change with one proclamation

We live in a world driven by instant connections, with ready access to resources previous generations could only dream of. And yet, ignorance and hatred continue to fuel strife and violence all over the world. Be it religion, culture, caste or creed, the human race continues to be its own worst enemy. We like to think that we’ve outgrown the mistakes of our past, that this time around we will correct injustice before it happens, as opposed to retroactively applying a cure to something already diseased.

When you hear about Russia’s emphatically anti-gay policies, including a bill that prohibits “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors” (whatever that legalese means in real life, I have no clue), you start to question exactly how far out of the Dark Ages society really has come.

Amidst the backdrop of the Sochi Winter Olympic games and the strong homophobic leanings of the host nation’s government, Michael Sam took one giant step forward and came out of the closet, making it very likely that come this fall, he will become the first openly gay athlete to ply his craft in the NFL.

I wish for the day when this kind of news is not even worth a passing mention.

Sports have long been home to the rebels, the forward thinkers, the pushers of the boundaries of society. Be it Jackie Robinson in baseball, Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe in tennis, Charles Follis and Fritz Pollard in football or Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd in basketball, the universal truth is that sports were among the first associations in America to integrate, crossing a line that society as a whole did not redraw for quite some time. Sports led the charge while society tagged behind, looking at its toes while progress marched on by.

Today, sports remain one of America’s great vices, almost a language unto themselves. But this addiction to sports is what makes them so valuable from the perspective of fostering change. Folks who couldn’t separate Turin from Tallahassee can rattle off box scores of age-old sporting events from memory, verbatim. This is what makes them so powerful. Societal norms, no matter how amoral or incorrect, take significant effort to undo: think about the decades needed to abolish slavery, the decades needed to reverse segregation or the still-ongoing battle against racism.

Sports can help redefine norms, and that is what makes Michael Sam’s bold proclamation so important. We will not focus on Sam’s personal courage and strength, which are admirable and by themselves worthy of our praise and support. Selfishly thinking in terms of the big picture, this is the first step in what will hopefully be a quicker path to total and unquestioning acceptance. Football is the most popular sport in America. Former Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo said last year that as many as four players that were in the league at the time were thinking about coming out. I hope that this is a sign of the floodgates opening, that players will not be judged by their orientation but by the athletic gifts they possess. That people will not be judged by their sexuality, but by the content of their character.

In some sense, it can be argued that LGBT rights are the big-picture issue of our time, as much as the Civil Rights movement was the issue in the 1960s or foreign policy was in the 1970s. The path we take moving forward will define what it means to be a human being in the not-too-distant future. I hope and pray that it is a future that we all can be proud of, bar none.

You go, Michael Sam. You were the first to take the plunge in football; time will tell if it is the impetus needed to empower change in our world.

Vignesh Venkataraman has a dream. Ask him about it at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.