Will Michael Sam go undrafted because he’s the first Div I college football player to come out as gay? Shawn Peters gives 4 reasons why that’d be a huge mistake.
On Sunday, Michael Sam, the current SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, told ESPN’s Chris Connelly in an interview that he is a gay man, which means he will be the NFL’s first active and “out” player, assuming he is drafted.
But not everyone is making that assumption.
The University of Missouri senior was projected by some, including The CBSSports.com Draft Board , to be drafted in the 3rd round of the upcoming NFL Draft before his announcement. However, those predictions have fluctuated wildly since Mr. Sam made his statement to the media. That same draft board on CBSSports.com had him listed as low as 160th (down from 90th) later that night, and now has him sitting at 110th, nearly one full round later than earlier projections. At least one NFL executive has gone as far as to tell reporters they expect him to go undrafted .
The question being asked right now isn’t, “Will Michael Sam’s draft status be affected by him coming out?” The question is how far he will slide down and how many teams will remove him entirely? Whether NFL decision makers are scared away by the potential media firestorm, a fear of conflict in the locker room or have their own personal beliefs or prejudices, most pundits believe Michael Sam’s NFL career will start later on draft day –if at all on draft day– than if he had just stayed quiet.
The pundits are probably right. But even though I am no talent evaluator and haven’t played a down of organized football since college intramurals, I think that NFL GMs could easily find at least four compelling reasons why this players has exhibited exactly the kind of attributes that should move him up draft boards, instead of down.
1. COURAGE – Not the classic, football-cliché variety where a young man will run through any block or fight any opponent. Michael Sam has shown the most inspiring type of courage by opening himself up to his detractors in an effort to “own” his “truth” (his words, not mine.) He is brave enough to challenge just about every preconception about what a football player is supposed to be, other than “good at playing football.” And most courageously, he did it now, when he has the most at stake.
2. LEADERSHIP – Michael Sam came out to his Mizzou teammates in August, before the start of the 2013 season. As a team captain, he took a risk. If the team reacted poorly, he would short-circuit a season full of promise by creating a rift on the roster. Apparently, the senior leader knew his team, because not only did the Tigers go 10-2 in the regular season, play for the SEC Championship and win the Cotton Bowl, but also… not a single one of his teammates went running to the media (or social media) with the information. Whether you think Ray Lewis was one of the greatest linebackers of all time or a man who’s lucky not to be in jail for his involvement in a 2000 murder, you cannot deny he was a great leader who inspired his teammates to believe in him and themselves. It would be hard to argue that Michael Sam hasn’t exhibited some of those same skills.
3. HONESTY – If Michael Sam’s agenda was to be the first openly gay player in the NFL, he certainly could have denied any rumors until he was drafted and signed, and then dropped the bombshell, once he had his signing bonus. But it was clearly important to him that whatever team selected him know the real Michael Sam, who is a 6’2”, 260-pound, African American defensive end… who also happens to be homosexual. The NFL Draft process is one where most players are trying to present the most “draftable” version of who they are. Players mask injuries and pretend to be students of the game instead of party animals. Overweight players cut weight before the combine and skinny players bulk up. Anything to gain an advantage. Michael Sam chose to be perfectly honest about the one thing teams might not have known about him.
4. ANTICIPATION – On the field, there is nothing more important for a defender than the ability to see a play coming before it develops and stopping it before it can succeed. Every great linebacker or defensive end has that ability, and Michael Sam appears to have demonstrated it off the field too. By his own admission during his interview, he said that by the time the Senior Bowl rolled around, scouts and evaluators were asking questions about his sexuality. Whether they’d heard information from his coaches or his teammates or even from private investigators isn’t important. What is important is that Michael Sam saw what could be coming. He knew that at best, if he remained silent, word would get out to the media and he’d risk having someone else tell his story. But at worst, the truth about his homosexuality would stay confined to the NFL front offices and draft rooms, and that would give all the teams the freedom to pass on him for several rounds and maybe even leave him undrafted without ever explaining why. Every year, mid-round talents slide and while the media catches whiffs of reasons, they rarely report on it since it is often rumor and innuendo.
If that had happened, Mr. Sam could have called a press conference and announced that he felt he’d been snubbed because of his sexuality, but it might have come across as sour grapes. Just ask former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, who wrote a scathing public letter about how he felt he was replaced because he was a vocal supporter of gay rights. Very few doubt his account, but the fact that it came out well after his dismissal allowed detractors to accuse him of having an axe to grind.
Michael Sam came out before the draft, publically and confidently, and in doing so, he insured that any NFL General Manager who doesn’t draft him in the third round… or the fourth… or the fifth, sixth or seventh, will be asked a two part question. “Why didn’t you pick Michael Sam? Was it because he’s gay?” And best of all, the GMs know it too. It won’t be up to Mr. Sam to accuse anyone of anything. It’ll be NFL executives playing defense. Now you tell me if that doesn’t sound like Michael Sam is anticipating the play, calling an audible, and controlling the point of attack.
Regardless of what unfolds in the coming weeks, there’s no question that the NFL, the most powerful, popular and “masculine” of all the professional sports leagues in the United States, is about to come to grips with the reality of openly homosexual athletes playing in the league. There will be a varying level of comfort (or discomfort) for players, coaches and fans. Sports talk radio will explode and sizzle, ESPN will have a running ticker, and while there will doubtlessly be some who react with anger and hate, there will just as doubtlessly be others who counter with acceptance and hope. This is the case whenever prejudice is challenged and “the old ways” are replaced.
It’s going to happen some day and to some player. Michael Sam has announced with his words and his actions that he is prepared to be a different kind of “first pick” regardless of where he goes in the draft.