Jonathan Cohn asked an interesting question at The New Republic this week. Where is the mainstream, right-wing reaction to NFL prospect and SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay? This is, after all, a historic story that far transcends the world of football. The news has been at the heart of sports radio and social media commentary for the last week, dwarfing even the Sochi Olympics, for obvious reasons. We have never had an openly gay player in one of the major men’s leagues in the United States, and now, with the bravery of one young man, it looks like an imminent reality.
Many NFL owners, a group that skews decidedly right-wing in both their politics and their financial donations, have gone out of their way this week to tell the world that Michael Sam’s announcement would not effect how they assessed his draft status. Denver Broncos GM John Elway, a person who showed up on Fox News before the Super Bowl to espouse his proud Republican Party identification, praised Sam’s undeniable courage and said, “The bottom line is that it’s about treating others with respect and earning that respect. By all indications, it appears Michael has done just that throughout his football career.” Elway would seem like an obvious guest for Fox to discuss Michael Sam, and yet the most watched network on cable news has chosen to create a reality where Sam does not exist. Further symbolizing their confusion was Rush Limbaugh, who sounded like that unhinged relative you try to avoid as much as possible. Limbaugh’s commentary about the subject centered on the thesis that “heterosexuals are under assault,” which, in this context, doesn’t even make sense.
Yes, the crazies in Westboro Baptist Church and some of the more reptilian swamps of the right-wing blogosphere have let loose with the homophobia, but the mainstream has been silent. It is not just Fox. Doesn’t National Review or The Weekly Standard have anything interesting, or even uninteresting, to say about any of this? Nothing? Really?
The New Republic’s Cohn even put out a plaintive tweet asking people on the right, “What do conservatives & Republicans think about a gay player in the NFL? Honest question, hoping for positive answers.” He did receive a curt tweet or two in response, mostly of the, “I don’t care as long as he can play football” variety.
Yet the question still hangs in the air. Why have Fox and its various radio outposts operated under a veil of near silence about this story? They did not respond to me for this story, but I did speak to Brian Frederick, an adjunct professor in Sports Industry Management at Georgetown University and a former senior editor at Media Matters. He said, “Fox News’s on-air talent is likely more progressive on the issue of gay rights than their audiences. As a result, it’s one of those topics that’s best left unexamined lest the hosts upset their fan base. Further, the Michael Sam story doesn’t really give them a way to attack the Obama administration or the Democrats, which is almost their sole function at this point.”
I think this is right. I also think the answer lies in the same reason that George W. Bush can organize his entire 2004 re-election campaign around a series of homophobic state referendums against LGBT marriage while his daughters attend a friend’s “commitment ceremony”. It lies in the lonely death of Roy Cohn and the lonely bathroom stall of Senator Larry Craig. It lies in Tommy Thompson, despite his years in the Bush administration, not wanting to touch homophobia when running against the openly gay Tammy Baldwin in 2012 for the Wisconsin senate. Times have changed, and the mainstream right has no idea how to change with them. They are Betamax in an instantly streaming world.
While the Democrats have been far more up-front with their support—rhetorically if not legislatively—of LGBT rights, being gay is not a policy position. LGBT people exist in masses of Republican families, including in those of some of the leading Republican politicians in the country, and not just the Cheneys either. The tension, of course, then lies with the fact that the Bible Belt, Christianist base of the Republican Party wants LGBT people “cured,” not accepted into the human family. Republican elites, caught between their own friends and family and their own donors and voters, have decided that silence is the better part of valor. History will judge this as cowardice. That we now hear nothing from them but a chorus of crickets just makes them look odd.