Michael Sam, defensive end of the Missouri Tigers, spoke to his teammates last August to tell them what most of them already knew: he was gay. He had acknowledged his sexual orientation to family, friends and whoever was caring or uncaring enough to ask.
By the time he was named Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year, in December, more than a few newspaper reporters in Columbia, Mo., were aware of his bedroom proclivities. But they maintained, without any apparent collusion, an embargo on distributing the news of his orientation. Out of respect, they later said, for the privacy of the player who had not issued a press release nor asked his sports information office to do so.
How much does the public have a right to know about a 23-year-old college student? This must have made for interesting discussion in the University of Missouri’s top-ranked journalism school. Some news stories require restraint, and perhaps this was one.
All Sam wanted was to be himself without drawing attention to himself. He was all about putting team above self and honesty above self-interest. Out of respect for this likable young man, the media let him control his story. In his own way, on his own schedule.
Still, I have to wonder how an entire city could have kept radio silence on news as major as this. Were reporters really turning a blind eye out of consideration for the player? Or out of fear of a controversial and ultrasensitive subject? This is a story that no matter how it’s reported will seem biased to many people.
There has never been an openly gay player in the National Football League, though several have “come out” after retiring. Before Sam outed himself, to the New York Times on Feb. 9, he was projected to be a third-round draft pick.
Since then, his stock has corrected a bit— to fourth or fifth round. But that could be attributable to disparaging Senior Bowl reviews. At least, that’s what we’re being told.
Considered undersized, at 6-2, 260 pounds, for DE in the NFL (though Dwight Freeney and Elvis Dumervil are smaller), Sam did not make a good first impression as an outside linebacker.
Never mind it took months for Mario Williams to become effective with that same shift, Sam had to do it in one week.
At any rate, NFL scouts are far more enamored with Missouri’s other defensive end, Kony Ealy, 6-5, 275 pounds and a likely first-round pick.
While badmouthing Sam in anonymity (as relayed by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King who in turn was savaged for his revelations), the NFL is showing a public face of inclusion and fair play. The league office issued a statement saying, “We admire Sam’s honesty and courage.”
Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, assured the Boston Herald: “If a player were gay and came into this locker room it would be the most supportive system.”
That’s probably true. Bill Belichick may be the most adaptable coach in the league, and he meets with team captains every week to keep apprised of the tone of the locker room. He would not permit bullying. Or anything else that would threaten team unity.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has a brother who’s openly gay, and knowledge of that fact alone should deter the Incognitos of the football world.
Which is not to say New England might draft Sam. On any round.
Say the Patriots are looking for an outside linebacker – and they should be – and they find Sam available on the fifth round. Is Belichick going to declare, “That’s the guy I want” or is he going to take someone who grades a few decimals lower but brings no controversy? My hunch is he will choose a slightly lesser player than Sam at this less than critical position.
Coaches are by their DNA control freaks, and Coach Spygate more than most. He knows he can’t control what players say in the locker room or on I-phone or Twitter. It’s not that NFL head coaches are homophobic. They’re distraction-phobic.
Belichick would not want any of his players unnerved by a naked man possibly leering at them while they’re changing clothes. Yes there have been gay men in NFL locker rooms, but there’s a difference between suspecting and knowing. The NFL is the land of Don’t ask, Don’t tell. There’s a privacy issue here (just as there was with Sam and the delivery of his message) that some gay-rights activists may not recognize or may choose to discount.
The media is asking, “Is the NFL ready?” But that hardly matters. Ready or not, Michael Sam is here. Is he supposed to sit out a year or two so the NFL can better prepare for his arrival?
At some point, some NFL team will give Sam a chance to play. If not, the league will be looking at a public relations firestorm and the likelihood of costly litigation.
But who will step forward to call Sam’s name? Whoever drafts him will confront complex sociological issues. There’s a school that a coach doesn’t want his players talking out of. Especially to reporters.
Sam is, forgive me, a political football. He’s a reverse Tim Tebow, and Belichick wanted none of the first one. The last thing Belichick wants to be is director of a media circus. Comments and jokes about Sam could alienate the right as well as the left.
The Miami Dolphins must deal with the recent Wells Report that cited offensive line coach Jim Turner for giving a male blowup doll as a Christmas “present” to a player suspected of being gay.
Rush Limbaugh has called Sam’s interview with the Times part of “the gay agenda” to establish legal protections straight people don’t have. In the world of Rush, Sam “chooses” to be gay because he thinks that will benefit him more than being straight. This is a matter of supreme concern, as the survival of our species is in doubt if too many young men (or women) decide to pair up with their own.
So Michael Sam’s quest for a pro football career is imbued with symbolism and perhaps allegory. His success or failure will have long media life, though future generations – hell, Sam’s own – will wonder why it was ever such a distraction.
Sam had 11 ½ sacks last year, made All-America teams and by all reports is good enough to play at the professional level. But not to star in it. If he were an unblockable disruptor, Auburn would not have hung 59 points on Mizzou in the SEC Championship Game.
Every NFL team that skips Michael Sam, again and again, can find an excuse for looking elsewhere. It’s not like they will have to explain why they passed on J.J. Watt.
Rob Rang, draft analyst for CBSSports.com, probably has it right: “As the media glare intensifies at the Scouting Combine and the weeks leading up to the draft, Sam will be seen as more and more of a distraction. That act – not Sam’s homosexuality – is what will cause him to slip into the late rounds or perhaps even out of the draft.”
Consider Kerry Rhodes. A safety who intercepted four passes and broke up 11 for the Arizona Cardinals in 2012, he suddenly became as unwanted as a rabid skunk, when compromising photos circulated on the Internet and he was perceived as gay. Not someone a coach wants circulating through his team’s dressing quarters.
Rhodes in any state of decorum would have looked better than the Denver Broncos safeties who were undressed in the Super Bowl. Does anyone think he wasn’t good enough, even at 31, for Houston, Jacksonville, Washington, Dallas or Oakland? None of them?
No team wanted a civil rights icon, though Rhodes claimed, all pics aside, to be hetero.
Wherever Sam goes, he will be a lightning rod for Limbaugh and cohorts on talk radio. Not to mention TV. OK, let’s mention it. What will ESPN, CNN, FOX, Sixty Minutes, TMZ do with this? Will Spike Lee make a movie?
Sam, unlike Tebow, is not stripping off his shirt or creating gestures that bring attention to his cause or marketing opportunities to himself. Sam may have sacrificed his draft prospects by revealing truths that make him an authentic role model for millions of boys who need one, their own fathers having rebuked them or abused them for their sexual inclinations.
It may not be courageous for a flower shop owner to proclaim he’s gay as if we’d never guess. But it’s quite another matter for a prospective pro football player to trust in the tolerance and decency of the NFL. Ask Kerry Rhodes — if anyone can find him – about that.