The player didn't want to shower with his team. He was from the wrong side of the culture, and while he could share a field and a depth chart with his teammates, the locker-room shower was too intimate and thus too fraught a space.
After one game Robinson waited for all the other Dodgers to shower before he took his shower. Outfielder Al Gionfriddo said to him, "You're part of this team. Why are you waiting to be the last guy in the shower? Just because in some states Negroes can't shower with whites, that doesn't mean it has to apply here in our clubhouse." The two men went in and showered.
The player is Jackie Robinson, obviously, and the passage comes from Peter Golenbock's account of the integration of the Dodgers in 1947. In the wake of ESPN's blockheaded report about the showering habits of Michael Sam, which has drawn both the ire of Rams coach Jeff Fisher and the attention of The Daily Show, this seems like a good time to step back and think about what this Michael Sam showering story is really about.
Let's start here: It absolutely matters if Michael Sam is afraid to shower with his straight teammates for fear of making them uncomfortable, and it absolutely matters if his teammates really are uncomfortable. This is as much a part of Sam's story as it was a part of Jackie Robinson's, and there's a very good reason that historians and sportswriters looking back at Robinson's ordeal are as interested in who showered with whom as ESPN's Josina Anderson was the other day in reporting on how Sam was fitting in with the Rams.
If Michael Sam really is making a concentrated effort to avoid sharing a shower with his teammates, he is living under the exact same kind of fear that Jackie Robinson did, and that is devastatingly sad—so much so that it kills a lot of the warm fuzzies brought on by Sam's coming out. That is a very important story.
But here is what Josina Anderson told SportsCenter viewers:
Another Rams defensive player told me that "Sam is respecting our space" and that, from his perspective, he seems to think that Michael Sam is kind of waiting to take a shower, as not to make his teammates feel uncomfortable.
"Respecting our space" is a brutal phrase. It begs the question with every word. It sinks a coup de grace through the heart of the Sam story. "Respecting our space" rests on the presumptions that gay men are, in Chris Kluwe's ever-useful phrase, "lustful cockmonsters," and that for Sam to fit in he's probably smart to keep his dick away from other naked men. Where ESPN fell down on the job wasn't in reporting on the fraught nature of the locker-room shower. It was in gratifying those presumptions rather than interrogating them. It was in suggesting that Sam was simply doing a solid for his bros by avoiding the showers. It was in forgetting the lessons of Jackie Robinson.
Unfortunately, it's unlikely that this story will ever get the handling it deserves. ESPN was quick to issue an apology for Anderson's report, the brevity of which felt like a way of saying, "Sorry! We'll avoid talking about this icky gay stuff from now on!"
And then Jeff Fisher came out firing at Anderson in a clear attempt to scare away other reporters who might be thinking of trying to pierce through the jock omerta that so often governs locker rooms:
"Obviously she came in, in all likelihood to see if there was gonna be a roster move at the 75 cutdown as it relates to Mike Sam. That didn't happen. But she needed to do something, and it's my understanding that she manufactured this story.
"She was out of line because she went and contacted several players on their personal time. Misled them with questions and then put this piece together."
"I'm disappointed for Mike," Fisher said. "I'm disappointed for the players who she put in this position, and mostly I'm disappointed for her because she felt what she was doing was right — and it wasn't right."
So that's that. We've comfortably returned Sam's gayness to the realm of abstraction, where no one has to contend with the messy human complications of an openly gay man integrating a straight man's space. ESPN will slink away from this; the players will keep their mouths shut from now on; and whatever homophobic bullshit Michael Sam may be dealing with in his own locker room will go unreported until the historians come around and make sense of things.