When it was announced that free agent linebacker Michael Sam was signing with the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, many people’s thoughts turned to Jackie Robinson. Robinson famously spent a year playing for the minor league Montreal Royals before making his way to the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was believed by Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, quite simply, that Montreal was less bigoted than the United States. Jackie Robinson would have the experience of playing without the weight of a dominant culture casually putting his humanity on trial with every at-bat. But I didn’t think right away of Robinson upon hearing news of Sam. I thought about 1968 fist-raising Olympian Dr. John Carlos. When John Carlos was shunned by the United States and struggling to earn a living after his Olympic protest, he signed and played in the CFL for Montreal in 1971. He once said to me, “Living in Montreal was like therapy for my family after all the hate back home.” Now living in Georgia, Dr. Carlos still speaks about Montreal like it was a wonderland. I called him and asked whether he felt it would be a good landing place for Michael Sam. He said to me, “Michael Sam deserves as much a chance as anyone else to follow their dreams. If the NFL was not going to be that place, I’m very glad that the CFL was an option. It’ll be good for his mind too. I was very well received by the people of Montreal and Canada. I loved Montreal. He will too. They don’t give a hoot in Montreal who you are … as long as you try to learn a little French.”
The connection between Michael Sam and Jackie Robinson is even more illustrative. There’s an old expression from Mark Twain that I tend to overuse: “History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Last year, I worked this phrase like a government mule because it seemed to fit Michael Sam’s odyssey to the NFL so well. No, he wasn’t Jackie Robinson aiming to break the color line in 1947 and the differences in their journeys cannot be ignored. Most obviously, the overcoming of the obstacles of race and sexuality have significant historical deviations. In addition, Robinson was attempting to break through in advance of a civil-rights movement, which is why Dr. King described him years later as “a sit-inner before sit-ins, a freedom rider before freedom rides.” Michael Sam is coming to the NFL after decades of LGBT people fighting to be open in both the workplace and the world. If sports was ahead of the curve on racial issues, on sexuality it has long lagged in both men’s and women’s sports.
The differences are real, but the similarities however have been too glaring to ignore. Michael Sam was going to have the burden of being "a first". His journey would be chronicled extensively and in turn force a lot of people who did not want to think about the issues LGBT people face, to acknowledge their existence. This sounds a great deal like the effect Jackie Robinson had on the country in the arena of race. Even the excuses long used to discourage LGBT athletes from coming out were common to the old color line: the shower and the locker room. Just as white athletes had to get over their irrational prejudice over sharing showers, we would see resistant football player – both straight and those grappling with their own sexuality – doing the same. Then there was the trope of “the distraction”: teams saying that it was less about prejudice than not wanting to deal with the uproar. History rhymes up a storm on that one. Unfortunately, Michael Sam did not have his Branch Rickey: the NFL executive who decided come hell or high water that this was going to happen. Yes, even if Rickey’s reasons were often less about social justice than the future value of the franchise, he should always get credit for persevering when his fellow owners told him to stand down. Michael Sam did not have a similar champion, despite both a college career and an NFL preseason that should have made him worthy of receiving the opportunity.
Now however, Michael Sam’s football career lives and once again we have a mirroring of the Jackie Robinson story. The legacy of Robinson is part of what makes this feel so right. As Montreal talk radio host Dave Kaufman said to me, “Montreal is a city that still proudly boasts that Jackie Robinson got his start here. He will be embraced and accepted, and most importantly, he will be given the chance to concentrate on football. Plus, there’s no better place to be in North America in the summertime. I think he’ll fall in love with Montreal, and vice versa.”
The Canadians I know are always very quick to tell me to not talk about their country like it is some kind of social democratic paradise, free of oppression. They will be quick to point out all the ways in which Canada falls short of its ideals and has more in common with the worst aspects of the United States than is often acknowledged. I was even accused once of wearing “maple leaf goggles” by a friend in Toronto. Perhaps that is true. But I also know that Malcolm X said, “As long as you are south of the Canadian border, you are South.” Living in a country where “I can’t breathe” has morphed from a man’s dying words to a protest slogan with which thousands identify, it is possible that people just breathe a little easier in the great north. Michael Sam could soon discover that same joy. Like Jackie Robinson, he’ll show just how well he can play without a vocal minority of people psychologically over-invested in his failure.