Why Cutting Michael Sam Was a Mistake for the Dallas Cowboys

The subversive NFL moment that never happened

Photo by John Tornow

Michael Sam was waived yesterday and finds himself without a team.

In a year of PR disasters for the NFL, it would have made for one of the most slyly subversive moments the sport would have ever known had Sam gotten the chance to enter a regular season game for the Dallas Cowboys and become the first openly gay player to appear in a pro football game. The historical value to the ongoing struggle for LGBT rights would have been obvious, but less so the irony had Sam been able to walk onto the field wearing the jersey of the team with perhaps the most fraught relationship with sexuality.

Much of the reason the Cowboys are considered “America’s Team” is the way that their image taps into old American mythologies about masculinity and the frontier. The Cowboy is a “man’s man”—think John Wayne, the Marlboro Man, and the Lone Ranger. The mythology of the cowboy isn’t just window dressing—it’s enmeshed in the very fabric of the team.

The franchise struggled in its early days. It’s rise to eminence began not long after President Kennedy was assassinated downtown in the city’s Dealey Plaza. That primordial trauma seemed to propel a fantasy of male invulnerability that would somehow stick. The Cowboys seemed to bring confidence and swagger to a city unable to protect the President of the United States from but a single, impotent man.

To invoke the Dallas Cowboys is of course to invoke its famous cheerleaders. The team re-branded the very concept of the cheerleader in the early 1970s—turning a co-ed team of chaste boosters into a star spangled team of professional dancers in hot pants and go-go boots. The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders lent an ostensibly erotic dimension that the public seemed to project onto the team’s players. The 1979 film North Dallas Forty, a thinly veiled take on the Cowboys, sublimated the homosexual innuendo between two players in the 1973 novel (by former Cowboy Peter Gent), into a sex-fueled romp centering on the team’s players and their female groupies.

Any serious examination of the Dallas Cowboys identity inevitably runs through Jeff Pearlman’s expose of the team during the 90s, Boys Will Be Boys: The Glory Days and Party Nights of the Dallas Cowboys Dynasty perhaps the most sexually charged sports portrait ever written. With its tales of infidelities, orgies, prostitutes, nightly trips to gentlemen’s clubs, and public masturbation it makes the 1978 pornographic film Debbie Does Dallas seem as dull as a visit to the George W. Bush Presidential Library. As Pearlman tells it, however, the sex scandals that plagued the team, didn’t tear at it’s seams as much as the rumor that its future Hall of Fame quarterback, Troy Aikman, was gay.

All NFL teams have cultural histories that, whether we like it or not, accompany their players when they enter the field of competition, but those meanings are never fixed. That’s why it’s so fascinating when a matinee idol helms the blue collar Patriots, or a smack-talking punk joins the austere and time-honored Browns franchise.

And it’s why it would’ve been the perfect irony if Michael Sam had been able to jog onto the field in Dallas and disrupt a universe in which women are still viewed as sexual objects and men, hyper-sexed hetero-brutes. Now, all we can do is imagine Michael Sam standing underneath AT & T Stadium’s partial roof where fans of the team boast, “God looks down to watch the Cowboys play.”