Last February, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam publicly declared he was gay – a first for a likely NFL draft pick. Last week, the St. Louis Rams drafted him in the last round – another first. But I believe the trickiest terrain is still ahead.
When Michael Sam told his University of Missouri teammates he was gay before last season, no one seemed to care very much. No one tweeted the news to the public, and Sam had a great season. It’s a safe bet that NFL teams – who know what kind of gum their prospects chew – already knew he was gay, too. But when Sam came out publicly, it changed the equation.
The NFL has already had gay players, so that isn’t new. But publicly declaring you’re gay is new – and so is the onslaught of media attention.
After Sam came out, he dropped from a projected fourth- or fifth-round draft pick to the seventh and final round. There’s no way to prove this, of course, but it’s hard to believe part of the reason wasn’t homophobia – though that term isn’t accurate. As the saying goes – often attributed to Morgan Freeman – “It’s not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole.”
But the NFL teams that passed on Sam probably had other reasons, too. Yes, Sam was named the Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference, the nation’s best – but he’s not a complete player. He’s great at sacking quarterbacks, but not at covering the run. At the NFL Combine, his numbers for speed, strength and agility weren’t that impressive.
But I’ll bet the biggest reason teams skipped him in the draft was a much bigger fear: Not homosexuality, but distractions. You don’t have to hang around football coaches very long before you hear them spit out their most hated word, “distractions,” about a hundred times.
Former Michigan All-American Larry Foote, who won a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers, told me that in the NFL, just about everyone’s fast, strong and smart. So most games boil down to three or four mistakes. Whoever makes those few mistakes, loses.
This helps explain why coaches are maniacally focused individuals. It’s no surprise they expect their players to be that way, too.
The St. Louis Rams spared the league an embarrassing black eye by drafting Sam, a clearly qualified player. But a few eyebrows went up when Sam celebrated by kissing his boyfriend on live TV. Some people felt uncomfortable – but as ESPN’s Jamele Hill said, “Blacks and whites would still be drinking from separate water fountains if we waited for folks to be comfortable about social change.”
The vast majority of reactions to Sam being drafted – from fans, writers and NFL players – were unequivocally positive. Only a relative few embarrassed themselves with predictably ignorant responses.
And that’s why Sam’s next move was so befuddling. Having won the war, he decided to lose the battle – or his handlers did. Soon after he was drafted, and was publicly welcomed by his teammates, he repeatedly said he wanted to be judged only as a football player, and keep his private life private. Fair enough. But then he signed a side deal with Oprah’s production company to star in a reality show based on his life, on and off the field – something the seventh-round draft picks aren’t typically offered.
Even commentators who had publicly supported Sam’s decision to come out felt compelled to point out the hypocrisy of Sam’s talking the talk, but walking the other way. Sam’s handlers and producers – who all stood to make millions off the reality show – had to be convinced by the team to drop the idea. And it apparently took a lot of convincing.
So, for now, things have settled down. Sam has gone back to what he claimed he always wanted to be: just a football player. He has plenty of work to do just to make the team, and even if he does, the average career for an NFL player is about three years. That’s why football players say the NFL doesn’t stand for “National Football League,” but “Not For Long.”
The trickiest terrain still lies ahead. And it’s not on the field, and it’s not with the fans, or even Sam’s teammates. It’s with his advisers, who threaten to plunder his chance to make a difference before his career even starts.
They need to let Sam be himself, and do his job. That’s enough for any man.
About the writer: Ann Arbor resident John U. Bacon is the author of the national bestsellers “Fourth and Long: The Future of College Football,” “Bo’s Lasting Lessons” and “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.” You can follow him on Twitter (@Johnubacon), and at johnubacon.com.
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