Commentary

Showing how it's done

Mizzou students protected Michael Sam from seeing church protesters

Updated: February 18, 2014, 6:14 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Mizzou fansAP Photo/L.G. PattersonThere weren't enough #Stand with Sam buttons because so many showed up to support Michael Sam.

I love this latest generation of Americans, this Generation Y. Maybe when you're born with a computer in your hand, solutions come easy. They're givers, joiners and fixers. I wish I were one of them.

Nothing proves it more than what happened Saturday in Columbia, Mo.

It all started with the people I'd most like to see thrown into a wheat thresher -- the vile members of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam Supporters
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonPeople withstood below-freezing temperatures in Columbia, Mo., to ensure protesters would be blocked from view.

These are the snakes who picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers, holding up their "God Hates Fags" signs as a sick protest against gays in the military. They're the scum who post things like, "Thank God for 10 more troop deaths. We're praying for 10,000 more." They're the soulless who threatened to picket the Sandy Hook funerals.

Westboro announced it was coming to Columbia to picket Michael Sam, the Tigers' star defensive end who recently told the world he was gay. He was scheduled to pick up Mizzou's Cotton Bowl trophy at halftime of Saturday's Missouri basketball game against Tennessee, along with his teammates.

"GOD H8S FAG FOOTBALL PLAYERS & THEIR ENABLERS," the Westboro yelled, in caps on its website, in announcing their plans to picket.

The idea inflamed the campus. "We were angry," says Sam's teammate, senior left guard Max Copeland. "We're football players. We're protective. That's our brother."

And it all just made you want to hurl -- until two Missouri coeds had an idea.

"We wanted to do something to stand up to the hate," sophomore Alix Carruth said.

"We're both Christians," sophomore Kelaney Lakers said. "We know that's not God. God is love."

Their idea: Make a human wall to block out Westboro, a huge line of solidarity between their classmate and the Westboro stench.

"A single line, arm-in-arm, a sign of One Mizzou," they wrote on Facebook. They called it #StandWithSam. And they made up 1,000 buttons to give out.

It wasn't nearly enough.

By 1:30 p.m. Saturday, along Stadium Boulevard, an estimated 2,000 people had come, forming a line that stretched almost half a mile long.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonWilcox said he hopes his coaches and athletes would be tolerant and understanding if an athlete were to come out as Michael Sam has.

Imagine that: 2,000 people -- students, parents, kids, the elderly, the straight and the gay -- willing to stand in the freezing Missouri winter to support a young man most of them had never met.

"We turned our backs on [the WBC]," Copeland said. "That's how we stood -- a huge line with our backs to them. It was brilliant."

It was peaceful and powerful and ... fun? People wore homemade "Stand With Sam" shirts. Two girls wore sweatshirts that said, "My God Likes Tigers Of All Stripes." Drivers honked, held up fists and thumbs-up. There was a can-can line, a guy in a Wookie costume, and a guy in a full-body tiger suit.

"I was just so proud of them," Carruth said.

Across the street, the 14 Westboro protesters looked very small indeed.

Final score: Love 2,000, Hate 14.

Copeland texted Sam a picture of the line, with the caption: "You're very loved today, brother."

And what did Sam text back? "OMG!"

It got better. At halftime, he got a standing ovation, more hugs than One Direction, and even a request from Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon: "Could I get a picture with you?"

"Sam was just so moved," says a spokesman for Sam, who has asked out of interviews while he prepares for May's NFL draft, which will almost certainly make him the first openly gay active player in the league. "It was a huge day for him. A wonderful day. A life-changing day."

Sam tweeted:

"Sam seems so happy," says Copeland, "like a man who's cast off this huge weight."

So how do two devout Christians reconcile helping a man they consider a sinner? "Yes, practicing homsexuality is a sin," Lakers says. "But so is lying, so is cheating, so is coveting. I sin every day. God hates the sin, not the sinner. If God hated all the sinners, he'd hate me!"

What does it all mean? It means this sport is ready for this. At the start of the 2013 season, Sam told his 105 teammates he was gay, then went out and became the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year and led his team to a 12-2 record. If a gay man ruins the camaraderie of a locker room, I shudder to think how good Missouri would've been.

It means this new generation is ready for this. It has found the way through. It's with respect and honor and love. Why didn't we think of that?

It means the NFL better be ready for this. ESPN just surveyed 51 NFL players and seven of them said a player's sexual orientation matters to them. They worry too much. "It's not weird [being in the locker room with him]," Copeland says. "His new teammates are going to find out that (1) he's a great person and (2) he gets the job done."

What happened in Missouri should sound very familiar to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. According to a Time magazine profile of Goodell in 2012, the commish would often form a one-man wall between bullies and his gay brother, Michael, when they were growing up.

"Roger is very much a hero figure for me," Michael Goodell told Time.

Now Goodell needs to build a much bigger wall in his NFL to stop the kind of gay-bashing, bullying and blackmail that went on in the Miami Dolphins' locker room last season. He needs to make a new league -- a safe and sane place to work -- and Michael Sam can be the symbol of that.

And to think it took two sophomore Christian women in a red state in the middle of the country to show us how easy it could be.

Thank you, Missouri. You showed us.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com