U.S. News

05.08.14

Which Team Will Make History With Michael Sam Tonight?

The NFL teams will all be weighing up the impact of drafting the first openly gay pro-footballer. Who will take a chance on Michael Sam?

At some point this weekend, Michael Sam, a 6-2 261-pound defensive lineman from the University of Missouri, college all-American and 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year will hear his name called during the 2014 NFL Draft.

He’ll be at home, and the scene will unfold in a manner pretty much identical to that of the 256 other young men across the country; massive men perched on the edge of their couches, surrounded by friends and family as they await their reward for years of grueling, brain-rattling work on the gridiron, in a room filled with anticipation and grim, almost unbearable tension that will be shattered by a wild, jubilant eruption of howls of joy and back-slapping hugs and weeping moms.

Of course, Michael Sam isn’t just another prospect. On February 9, he announced to the rest of the world something his college teammates had already known for months beforehand; that he is gay.

Sam is neither desirous of the attention nor does he want his story to be different from his fellow draftees. As he said at the NFL Combine, “I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."

Right now, that’s not entirely possible. The difficulty is that both Michael Sam the football player and Michael Sam the gay football player are being evaluated as a prospect by a multibillion-dollar business, specifically one that treats both its potential and current workers like hunks of very large, profit-generating meat that can and will be discarded or shunned at the drop of a hat if they in any way imperil the bottom line.

Corporations are not and have never been moral actors, or entities in service of the greater good.

So yes, there’s a question of when (or even if) he’ll be drafted, but that question is in inexorably tied to this nation’s slow, staggering lurch towards accepting the basic truth that gay people are just that; people.

Sam’s stock has fallen somewhat precipitously in the days and weeks since he came out, from a projected 3rd rounder to an assumption that he’d go at some point between the 4th and 7th rounds, to a storied number-cruncher like Nate Silver projecting that, “based on a historical assessment of players who were rated similarly by media scouting projections, Sam’s chances of being drafted are only about 50-50.”

A recent article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel gave 21 NFL scouts the chance to air their thoughts (anonymously) on Sam’s abilities. The general consensus was overwhelmingly negative, repeatedly harping on his “tweener’ status and lack of standout athletic abilities, with 12 of the 21 said they wouldn’t draft Sam at all.

One scout from the NFC stated that, “Most of his production was hustle stuff. There's production, but he's short, he's not a really good athlete and he doesn't play good against the run, he said. “He's kind of a one-task pass rusher. Just run up the field. And they swallow him up and kind of push him around. It doesn't fit with being SEC defensive player of the year. But that's just kind of what he was.”

An AFC personnel official added, “It's a tough fit when you're short and slow and a try-hard overachiever. That's the issue."

It would be great to think that this is just a purely objective analysis; that after countless hours pouring over game film and collecting information that the brain trust(s) of the 32 NFL franchises have determined—as they will with countless other prospects— that despite Sam’s achievements as an amateur, his skills won’t necessarily translate to the pro game.

Alas, that’s not the case. These selfsame talent evaluators are also discussing Sam’s sexuality. As Bill Polian, the former general manager of the Buffalo Bills and vice president of the Indianapolis Colts, made clear on ESPN Radio. “One of the questions you would ask is, as a football player, is he worth all of the trouble we’re going to have in terms of the early going with media, with involvement by the league office, with involvement by special interest groups, et cetera? Is he worth all that trouble?” he said.

“There are going to be some teams, unfortunately, who say, ‘No, he isn’t.’ He’s not that great a player that they’re going to be willing to put up with the early kinds of intrusions–football people would view them as intrusions and distractions–that you will get, because this is not a sports media issue,” he continued. “This is MSNBC. This is Fox News network. This is [Bill] O’Reilly-type stuff that is going to get forced into your football program.”

Well, sure. This is the language the massive NFL machine sputters, coughs and wheezes as it grinds its way through the draft process. Everything about a player is poked and prodded and weighed, including things that have nothing to do with what occurs on the field. In this calculus, being an openly gay man is no different than the various spreadsheets packed with measurables, advanced statistics and both on- and off-the-record grumbling about “heart” and “motor.”

Anything that might cause a team to fear—not even be assured of, mind you, just potentially or possibly run the risk of—losing dollar one or hindering any employee within the organization from spending every waking millisecond pondering anything but the far more pressing, important questions like how the hell they’re going to keep Calvin Johnson out of the end zone even with three to four defensive backs draped all over him, is a justifiable reason for red-faced, sleep-deprived men in khakis and officially licensed team gear to cross his name off of their well-guarded draft boards.

And that’s their right, honestly. You might call it cowardly or a convenient way to dodge the fact that they’re indirectly validating any bigotry on the part of both players and fans alike, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. But corporations are not and have never been moral actors, or entities in service of the greater good. They exist to make a profit. Period.

Expecting otherwise is enough to make one recite the parable of the Old Woman and the Snake.

History bears this out. Take our most heralded example of sports leading the way on civil rights, Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson. His motivation wasn’t about righting a wrong; he was playing Moneyball, and the scores of African-American ballplayers toiling in the relative obscurity of the Negro Leagues were just a market inefficiency that he could exploit.

If you prefer a more current example, the NBA didn’t give Donald Sterling the boot solely because they were appalled by his repugnant, plantation mentality. (If that were the case, he’d have been gone years ago.) Rather, the powers-that-be were petrified by the wildcat strike by the players that was reportedly in the works in advance of the Clippers-Warriors playoff game, not to mention the shrinking gate receipts and fleeing advertisers.

Taking a principled stand in sports or almost any aspect of life requires some kind of risk, whether it’s profit or one’s personal well-being. That’s sort of the definition of an act of principle. That’s what Sam did when he came out. He knew that he was going to cause a media firestorm, and that said attention could impact his dream of playing pro ball.

He was willing to put that on the line because his endgame is a time and a place in which this isn’t a news story at all, or as Sam said, “when we can live life in a world when gays don't have to come out in public”; where the next gay athlete and the one after is afforded the basic dignity of being allowed to be honest about him or herself as a human being without fearing a pro league’s hand-wringing about some kind of silly “backlash.”

It's happening, too. It’s happening when Jason Collins bodies up opposing bigs for the Brooklyn Nets, doing the same work he’s done throughout his 13-year career with nary a peep from sporting press.

And it’s happening when Derrick Gordon, a sophomore college basketball player at UMass, cites Collins as an inspiration.

But Sam’s wrong about one thing. On Wednesday, after he was given the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, he said, “You know, I don’t think there is anything courageous I did.”

He’s wrong, for all the reasons outlined above. I get his humility and his desire to put the focus on the issues at hand. In that sense, he’s right. It isn’t about him. It’s why he doesn't want ESPN’s cameras present when he does find out where he’ll be plying his trade.

The next steps should be a great deal easier. When Sam is selected, or even if he signs as an unrestricted free agent, he’ll be just another player, going through the rigors of a season.

And the hack-ish desire to use Michael Sam for whatever pet partisan causes one please will fade, as it has with Collins, as he starts doing football things.

We won’t get to see all the actions that really begin to change hearts and minds; the other current players still in the closet that are talking with Sam right now, or the countless ways that an openly gay athlete can and will begin to shatter the stereotypes and prejudices that sadly still are present, and that’s probably for the best as well.

What Sam did and is doing is brave and big. It’s also human.