America's watershed sports moments don't always happen in stadiums before thousands of people.
Branch Rickey made his crucial decision about Jackie Robinson inside a ballpark office, probably with cigar smoke in the air.
The Title IX legislation discussions that created a new landscape for women's sports occurred in congressional committee meeting rooms, with legislators hashing out details.
And on Saturday, the NFL's moment of gay enlightenment occurred first in the draft day "war room" of the St. Louis Rams and then in the den of a family room, when University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam learned he was picked by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round. The difference this time was, unlike Rickey's decision and the Title IX haggling, television captured the moment. And then social media relayed it. We probably don't yet understand all the reverberations from that scene because we still don't know them all.
However, as I watched that moment, here were a few of my thoughts:
-- Just the very sight of an openly gay player being drafted by the NFL, plus his natural reaction of embracing his partner, probably means more than I can imagine across America to high school and college football players who are also gay.
-- The sequence of that video, with Sam receiving a cell phone call from the Rams telling him he'd be the 249th man selected in the draft, then Sam doubling over in joy, then his partner patting Sam's arm before giving him a kiss and a hug . . . then another kiss . . . with friends standing around and celebrating . . . if that doesn't make it into the video clip hall of fame, I don't know what will.
-- The moment stood out, however, because it seemed so organic and unaffected. That's really rare in the orchestrated world of event television these days, even in the supposedly "spontaneous" realm of reality television.
-- And, yes, as a 61-year-old straight man, I've had an adjustment period in recent years getting used to watching two men kiss in public, even if I've had gay friends since high school. But it's now been 11 years since Madonna kissed Britney Spears on national television during the MTV awards show, a moment that also made me initially shake my head before I realized: Okay, it's 2003, the republic will survive. So will the NFL and America after Sam's kiss, which of course was not as contrived as MTV's choreographed one.
-- In fact, the immediate reaction to the moment seemed to be a burst of Twitter applause, followed by supportive quotes for both the Rams and Sam. Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers head coach, said he didn't witness Sam's reaction but heard about it and said: "I can picture it. It was very emotional—it's great that you have those moments that can be captured." Trent Baalke, the 49ers general manager, said of Sam: "I'm very happy for him. He's a good football player. I wish he hadn't gone to the Rams because we now have to play against him twice a year."
-- Baalke also said that Sam was on the 49ers' radar as a defensive line prospect and that the team "could use him" but he must not have graded as high as Kaleb Ramsey, the Boston College defensive tackle who Baalke decided to draft in the seventh round, five spots ahead of where the Rams picked Sam. The selection probably was no snub at Sam, who at 6-foot-2 and 256 pounds is considered slightly undersized for his position in the NFL. Ramsey is 6-foot-3, 285 pounds. Sam probably deserved to be picked in the mid to late seventh round of the brutally tough drafting process. As evidence, such a seemingly can't-miss pro as Stanford linebacker Shayne Skove wasn't picked by anyone (although he signed later with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent).
-- Of course, I'm not naive. I'm sure that in various NFL offices and sports bars across America, the Sam reaction video was receiving more tittering and disapproving reaction than in the public-consumption marketplace. There will more of it moving ahead, maybe even in Sam's own locker room. But know what? By showing the full natural responses of a gay human being, Sam was showing everybody in the league as well as the NFL's fans that he does not give a damn what they think and that they need to get past it. As Sam himself said later: "It's about playing football. Can I play football? Yes, I can."
-- Some people speculated that the 49ers would be the perfect landing place for Sam, given the Bay Area's more welcoming atmosphere to the gay community. But St. Louis is a very good outcome for him, too, because his college is nearby and the flurry of sensational media attention that followed Sam when he came out as gay after the 2013 season has already swept across the St. Louis market. So it won't be as big a deal there, either.
-- My own wish is that soon, this will be no big deal, and that we can resume concentrating more on Organized Team Activities and mini-camps as if Sam is just another player. But he is not, of course. He is always going to be Michael Sam, the first gay NFL draftee. But perhaps his courageous audacity will encourage other gay players to come out sooner, so that fans can get past any issues with that truth and begin focusing solely on whether those players can help their teams reach the Super Bowl, not on who they will be embracing at the victory party.
-- And finally, as many people were pointing out in the aftermath of Sam's selection, it seems odd that some people have a problem with that but don't get too vexed or angry when a NFL player is arrested for assaulting a girlfriend or committing other felonies. All that Sam did Saturday was be happy, then declare he's ready to line up against an opponent and knock him down, as he did so well and so often in college. Anyone got a problem with that? I'm guessing Rams fans don't.