The 2014 NFL season was characterized largely by two scandals, one not-so-serious and one gravely serious. The first was Deflate-Gate, which was the kind of controversy that the ESPN-driven media thrives on. It provided a chance for talking heads to be outraged on TV without having to actually discuss anything of real social importance. In stark contrast was the second scandal dealing with domestic abuse. This was the cause of the almost laughably transparent PR campaign launched by the NFL in an desperate attempt to convince anyone that the league cared about the issue (before it was their turn to care). With these two story lines dominating the headlines this year, it begs the question: whatever happened to Michael Sam?
Michael Sam played defensive end for the University of Missouri, winning the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, and was a highly touted prospect going into the 2014 NFL Draft. Shortly before the draft, he announced to the media that he was gay. Subsequently, his draft stock plummeted. After finally being drafted by the St. Louis Rams, he was cut before the regular season began. He was signed to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad for almost two months before ultimately being let go, and has been a free agent since.
Many have argued that he is unsigned because he was a bad fit for the NFL (a bold statement considering he never saw anything more than preseason action), and that his sexuality did not factor into the equation at all. To this I would counter that Sam was never truly given an opportunity. I offer evidence that, if it were not for his sexuality, he would likely still be employed within the NFL. I argue that the league used Sam as a prop in a cheap PR stunt, only to discard him just as soon as they could get away with it.
Here is the narrative we have been given:
Michael Sam was a late round draft pick who probably would not have received much media attention if it were not for his sexuality. He is undersized for his position and never truly had the ability to compete at the NFL level. He had a fair opportunity to earn a roster spot with two different NFL franchises, both of whom ultimately released him.
This narrative ties things up neatly. The sports media machine gets to cash in on Sam’s big moment (being drafted) without having to challenge the NFL status quote. However, the narrative does not hold up well when examined closely.
Late round draft pick
Sam was originally projected to be drafted in the third or fourth round of the NFL draft, which obviously did not happen. Experts (or at least so-called experts) downplayed his sexuality being a factor, and cited two major reasons why he was nearly not drafted at all:
1. His mediocre performance at the Combine
The NFL Combine is an unreliable predictor of a player’s potential, regardless of what old-time NFL insiders will tell you. The only real argument for swearing by the sacred Combine is “this is how we’ve always done it.” A good showing at the Combine may indicate generalized athletic ability, but that is all. If a player runs a good 40 yard dash, all we really know is that he runs a good 40 yard dash. If he has a good bench press, we know that he has a good bench press. The only way that we can tell how these athletic abilities will translate to the football field is to watch the athletes actually play football.
2. His poor performance as an outside linebacker in the Senior Bowl
Anyone with even a cursory understanding of any kind of research understands that one game is a ridiculously small sample size.
Can not compete at the NFL level
We have actually seen Sam compete in the NFL during the preseason. While four games is an admittedly small sample size, do not forget that it was onegame (Senior Bowl) that supposedly sent his draft status into a free fall, costing him millions of dollars in the process. During his four preseason games played for the St Louis Rams, Sam recorded 11 tackles and three sacks. In a recent article, Cyd Zeigler notes that out of 20 defensive ends with similar preseason stats, only two were not subsequently given a spot on a season-long practice squad or active roster. .The first was Martez Wilson, who was drafted in 2011 and had been given a few years to earn his way in. The other was Michael Sam.
For a more in depth look at the potential that Sam showed, check out this article by Tyson Langland in August of 2014.This article contains animated GIFs that further break down Sam’s ability, as well as his score with Pro Football Focus (arguably the best NFL stats site out in existence). Or you could just check out this GIF of Sam sacking Johnny Football.
Had his chance with two teams
To argue that Sam was given a legitimate opportunity to make it in the NFL seems unfair, given that he was not given a full season on so much as a practice squad. We have already established that it is highly unusual for a player to perform the way that Sam did during the preseason and not be given at least that. Here is where Sam’s critics will point out that we do not really know what the Ram and Cowboy staffs’ saw from Sam during practice. It is true that we did not have access to team practices and film sessions, but we do have access to something else: football history.
One has to look no further than a list of past SEC Defensive Player of the Year winners, keeping in mind the fact that Sam won this award in 2013. As of the date this article, all players given the award from 2005-2012 are currently signed to NFL teams. The 2003 and 2004 winners both played in the NFL for two seasons. It seems fair to say that players who win this award end up playing at least a few years in the league. This means that one of two things is true: either 2013 was a bad year for award selection or there is something else about Sam that has kept him off of an NFL roster. Which seems more likely?
Further clarity comes from looking at winners from the ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, and Pac-12 as well. Cyd Zeigler points out that Sam’s snub is already at historical level. Every big-time conference Defensive Player of the Year drafted since 2000 – from the ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12 and SEC – has made an active NFL roster his rookie season … until Michael Sam came out as gay. For the sake of brevity, I am excluding further historical analysis. Zeigler’s articles do a better job of covering this part of the story in great detail, and are essential reading for anyone truly interested in gaining a stronger understanding of this story.
After rejecting the false narrative, we are left with the truth. Sam was never given a real opportunity to make it in the NFL, at least not the kind of opportunity that his talents merited. We have to assume that he is no longer employed in the NFL for reasons other than his playing ability. This leads to the question: what off the field reasons could teams have for not signing him to a 53 man roster? He has no DUI convictions, he has been taped battering his spouse in an elevator, no child abuse accusations, and he has murdered zero defenseless animals. The only thing he has done off the field that separates him from the rest of the league: he kissed another man while on national TV.
They Are Who We Thought They Were
When Sam went public about his sexual identity, supporters of equality had reason to be optimistic. As players and ex-players went public with their support of Sam. Jerome Bettis stated that 90 to 95 Percent of NFL Players would be accepting of Michael Sam. Deion Sanders took to Twitter to show his support, saying “I applaud Missouri DE @MichaelSamfootball for his bravery & honesty about who he is.“ Superbowl MVP Malcolm Smith tweeted that “There is no room for bigotry in American sports. It takes courage to change the culture.“ The idea that such notable players would come out in support of a gay man was unheard of 20 years ago. Was this a sign that the league was moving away from it’s arcane, hyper masculine identity?
While players and ex-players making statements to the media makes for good headlines, and does inspire a little faith, the important question still remained: how will the decision-makers behind the NFL respond to an openly gay player? In order for Sam to make his way into the league, he would need the backing of the rich, old, primarily white men behind the iron curtain of the NFL. An article on the official NFL website cited multiple team owners offering their support. Patriots owner Robert Kraft said that “ I personally don’t care what their ethnic background is, their racial background, the gender preference. If they can help us win, and they’re about team first, then I’m happy to have him here.” New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch stated that “As I said last night, Michael Sam is a gifted athlete and a courageous man, I hope any NFL team would not hesitate to draft Michael if he is right for their team.” It remained to be seen whether these statements reflected a genuinely progressive shift in the pro football landscape, or whether this was just politically correct posturing by corporate officials. Then the draft happened, and we got our answer.
While it seemed for a short while that the tide had turned, and that people within the league were finally willing to do something bold, as Michael Sam slid down the draft board (and nearly went undrafted), reality set in. NFL decision makers were perfectly willing to talk out of both sides of their mouths, preaching tolerance and equal opportunity on one hand, while practicing discriminatory hiring practices on the other. In the words of former Cardinals head coach Dennis Green, “they are who we thought they were.” An anonymous personnel assistant was quoted in Sports Illustrated saying that “It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.“ Plenty of pundits (like Herm Edwards) were more than happy to line up and co-sign the bullshit. This is where we heard the often cited argument that a gay player would be too much of a “distraction.” NBA legend Bill Russell said that his contemporaries used the same argument to justify the exclusion of African American athletes during the 1960s in an interview with the Associated Press.
Apart from the misguided and misinformed opinions of out-of-touch NFL insiders, Sam had one more obstacle on his way to the NFL, and his name is Jack Burkman. He is the Washington, DC lobbyist who drafted legislation to ban gay players from the NFL. Burkman is also the head of American Decency, an organization with (supposedly) over 3.6 million members. Burkman mobilized a massive opposition to Sam playing for the Rams, and threatened a boycott that would cost the team tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue. When Sam was signed by the Cowboys, Burkman threatened to boycott them as well.
To say that Burkman is single handily responsible for running Sam out of the NFL seems far-fetched, but this does speak to a large part of the problem. Burkman is not some lone lunatic screaming in the wilderness. His views are in line with a large part of the American public. It is true that popular opinion has changed in recent years, and more Americans now support same-sex marriage than ever before in American history. This does not mean that Burkman and those of his ilk are incapable of impacting the profits of any team that dares to employ Sam.
Ultimately, 32 NFL teams have thrown up their hands and decided that they do not know what to do with Michael Sam. There are too many people with too much power who are too far out of touch with the reality of a changing America. They have the convenient excuse that he is undersized for a defensive end (despite the fact that this is usually not a deal breaker). It seems easier to just avoid Sam entirely than it does to risk alienating a large part of their fan base (and losing money in the process). Never mind fairness, never mind any moral obligation to do the right thing, and never mind the fact that millions of gay people also watch football (and spend money). The NFL think tank has deemed Michael Sam bad for business, and chances are his NFL career ended the moment that he stepped out of the closet. While America was ready for an openly gay player in professional football, the NFL was not.
Gay Lives Matter
An argument that often comes up in this conversation is that if Michael Sam did not want his sexuality to be an issue, he should have never gone public in the first place. These criticisms became even louder when it was announced that Sam had agreed to do a reality show with Oprah Winfrey’s backing. Many even went as far as to say that Sam was cashing in on his sexuality. However, this line of thinking falls apart easily upon further examination.
In response to those who criticized Sam for his dealing’s with Oprah, I offer this three-word counter-point: why shouldn’t he? Being an out-of-the-closet homosexual, even the present day, is a tremendous act of courage. Remember that until 1973, homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the DSM (the handbook for clinical medical health professionals). We are just a few decades removed from Eddie Murphy freely using the word “faggot” freely in his stand up specials. We are just over 16 years removed from Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, being brutally murdered for his sexual identity. Homophobia is the last socially acceptable form of bigotry in America, and to be openly gay in the face of such ignorance and hatred requires bravery. If Michael Sam can profit from a reality show, why shouldn’t he? He is far from the first athlete to be featured in a documentary or reality show. No one was asking Sebastian Telfair why he had cameras following him around during the filming of Through the Fire.
The argument that gay people should withhold their sexual identities comes from a place of heterosexual privilege. Straight people are free to go about their lives without the fear of discrimination and violence. Young men and women are not ostracized from their families for being straight. Straight people are free to flaunt their heterosexuality at will, and they often do. To insist that gay people should not be free to do the same is bigotry, plain and simple. To insist that gay people stay closeted is to deny them their inalienable right to be themselves. It is just this kind of attitude that drives young gay men and women to severe mental health issues, and sometimes suicide. Participating in the culture of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is harmful and morally reprehensible.
So in 2015, Michael Sam has all but disappeared from the football landscape. There is little evidence that justifies Sam’s exclusion from the league, aside from “because we say so” from the NFL decision makers. The great strides the country has made in the last few years (with gay marriage becoming more and more a reality) make the Michael Sam story all the more bitterly disappointing. They used this talented young man as a cheap PR stunt, then swept him under the rug the second the American public stopped paying attention. The NFL had a golden opportunity to take one huge step into the 21st century, and they blew it. To quote Dennis Green again, “they are who we thought they were and we let them off the hook.”