Carroll: From Michael Sam to Donald Sterling, free speech comes at a cost |

Carroll: From Michael Sam to Donald Sterling, free speech comes at a cost

I spent a good chunk of last week watching the NFL Draft, which is basically reality TV for us meathead football fans who certainly could spend our time more productively — like playing with our kids, expressing adoration to our better halves, tending to chores, staying ahead of work or — gasp! — reading a book.

Two major stories came out of the draft. First, where Texas A&M’s Heisman Trophy-winning, silver-spooned quarterback Johnny Manziel would wind up. The Cleveland Browns came calling, so good luck on that one, Johnny.

The second story line — whether it was manufactured by the media for higher weekend ratings, or whether the public was truly interested — was where another Southeastern Conference product, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, would land. In a hard-hitting conference that prides itself on defense, Sam was its defensive player of the year in 2013. Sam is also the first openly gay player to enter the draft.

By Saturday afternoon, Sam had remained unpicked. As my family was walking toward Aspen District Theatre for my 5-year-old daughter’s dance recital — yes, I found some time to break away from the TV — I overheard a high school kid saying that Sam had been drafted. He was the 249th player claimed in the draft, selected by the St. Louis Rams, a football franchise just a two-hour drive from the university he attended.

How big of a deal was this? Sam is the first openly gay man to play professional football, although certainly other gay men have played. And he won’t be the last.

But as is usually the case with these moments, the story became more about the public’s reaction to Sam being picked late in the draft and his celebratory moment with his boyfriend.

Did teams bypass him until the later rounds because he’s gay? If that’s the case, then that’s too bad, given that the NFL could have its own cop blotter lowlighting the actual crimes committed by its players, such as alleged DUIs, rapes,and other transgressions. Being attracted to someone of the same sex is not a crime — legal, moral or otherwise. But why Sam wasn’t snatched up earlier is a question that simply can’t be answered now. He’s either NFL material or he isn’t — and if he doesn’t make the Rams’ cut, I trust, maybe naively, that it’s because he wasn’t good enough.

A photo taken of Sam after he learned he’d been drafted showed him kissing his boyfriend. If I’d seen that when I was 14 years old — back in 1982 — I would have been shocked. But this is 2014, and it had the same impact on me as seeing any of the other drafted players kissing their loved ones — a touching moment that I’d forget the next day. I asked my 14-year-old son about the kiss. “So what?” he said. (Good answer, I thought.)

But there are still some folks out there masquerading as adults who were bothered by it. One of them was Done Jones, a defensive back for the Miami Dolphins, who tweeted “OMG” and “Horrible.”

And former New York Giants running back Derrick Ward tweeted, “Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can’t believe ESPN even allowed that to happen.”

Sports and the business of it are often about much more than what happens on the field or court. We saw it with Donald Sterling, we saw it with the reaction to Sam’s kiss with his boyfriend, and we’ll see it again.

As offended as some of us might be by the fact that bigots still exist, America remains a nation of free speech, even if some recent episodes bring that into question.

Jones was reprimanded by his team and ordered by his team to take down his Twitter account. And the NBA banned Sterling for his racist-laden comments that were recorded by his gal pal and leaked to TMZ. The NBA’s iron fist hammered down on a racist franchise owner for comments he made behind closed doors, and now there’s a movement to force him to sell the team.

It’s as if grown-ups are being treated like children for their remarks, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Let them make their comments and deal with the natural fallout — whether that means boycotts, lost endorsements, social-media movements, whatever.

But issuing draconian punishments for free speech, no matter how ignorant or hate-filled it might be, sets a dangerous precedent. I would hazard to guess that if everything we said behind closed doors was held against us, none of us would have jobs.

Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at

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