The next two days provide a moment of truth for the NFL – a judgment day on the league’s collective judgment.
The first round of the NFL Draft went by in prime time on Thursday night without Michael Sam’s name being called. That’s not a surprise, as the Missouri All-America defensive end was never expected to be a first-round pick.
Today’s second and third rounds might pass as well without Sam getting a phone call. The best-case projection for the player who led the Southeastern Conference last season in sacks (11.5) was third round, and that was before he failed to impress scouts with an underwhelming performance in the NFL combine.
If the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh rounds pass by Saturday without Sam being selected by any of the NFL’s 32 franchises – well, that will be a very sad day for America’s most popular sports league. If not one team is willing to take a chance on the defensive player of the year from the best conference in college football with one of 256 overall picks, there’s only one possible explanation.
Sam is a 6-foot-2, 260-pound football player with a “motor that runs hot” according to the NFL’s top draft analysts. He is also an openly gay man, having made that announcement publicly in February six months after he came out to his Missouri teammates.
His admitting the truth about himself was obviously so disruptive in his college locker room that the Tigers shocked everybody by going 12-2, winning the SEC East and eventually beating Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
“I may be the first but I won’t be the last,” he said of his openly gay status in the draft.
But NFL experts claim that Sam’s presence might “chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
Loving other men is apparently the worst thing an NFL player can do this side of quitting.
Admittedly there are reasonable and legitimate concerns about Sam’s ability to take his game to the next level. He’s considered too small to be an effective NFL defensive end and not quite fast enough to transition into being a pass-rushing linebacker. He didn’t excel at the combine, where the scrutiny on the first openly gay player vying for a draft pick reached absurd levels.
Sam displayed a quiet dignity in the proceedings while yahoos from inside and out of football made jokes about his sexual orientation, such as pro golfer Steve Elkington’s ignorant tweets about competing in the “handbag toss.”
Should Sam not get drafted, the league’s scouts will hide behind those numbers despite his improving vastly on them a month later in a public workout for teams. Truth is, however, that Sam’s stock already was plummeting right after he came out as gay. He fell 70 spots in one projection a few hours later, in fact, without ever running a 40 or lifting a weight.
Sports Illustrated polled league representatives anonymously to get their most honest assessments of what being gay would mean for Sam’s draft stock, and the answers were less than enlightened.
“I don’t think football is ready for it just yet,” said the same player personnel assistant who added the “chemical imbalance” quote above. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game.”
“There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that,” an NFL assistant coach said.
When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel polled 21 NFL scouts recently, a third of them said they wouldn’t even sign Sam to a free-agent contract.
That’s pathetic. Missouri was obviously ready to accept Sam as a player and team leader with seemingly zero negative ramifications based on results. His teammates voted him the most valuable player of a team that came one SEC Championship game loss away from competing for a BCS title. And those were just college kids. Shouldn’t the grown men in the NFL be even more mature?
“I came out to my team last August and coming out to them they rallied around me and supported me,” Sam said in February. “I knew in that moment that this could happen anywhere. If my team could support me any team can support me.”
It would be nice to believe that in 2014 that would be the case. Gay rights have come a long way in just the past decade as America slowly moves toward treating all fellow humans with appropriate dignity and respect. You don’t have to like or agree with everything about the people you work with, whether it’s politics, religion or musical tastes. But you have to respect them and be professional regardless of those differences.
NFL teams, coaches and players have shown an incredible willingness to accept a lot of players with all kinds of attributes: dog killers, cheaters, wife beaters, rapists, drunks who commit vehicular homicide, guys accused of murder, and so on. Nobody has come out and said they refuse to share a locker room with any of them.
Richie Incognito, a player with habitual behavioral problems going back to high school, hopes to be accepted back into the league somewhere this season after being revealed as an abusive locker room bully the same month Sam came out. Homophobic slurs were a particular Incognito specialty.
He’s not alone. In 2002, Lincoln County icon Garrison Hearst used an offensive gay slur condemning the idea of homosexual players in the San Francisco 49ers locker room. Hearst later apologized.
A decade later, however, another 49ers player and former Gamecock, Chris Culliver, trudged the same weary road of intolerance before the 2013 Super Bowl.
“No, we don’t got no gay people on the team, they gotta get up out of here if they do,” said Culliver, also suggesting a closeted gay player should wait 10 years after retiring before coming out.
Culliver, too, later apologized. But sadly, if Sam fails to get drafted or even signed to a free-agent contract, Culliver’s coming-out plan might prove to have been the more prudent course.
Sam will likely survive and thrive regardless of what happens this weekend. He just received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award that’s presented to athletes who “transcend sports.”
He’ll receive that award in July, hopefully on a night off from an NFL training camp.
Surely the NFL can find one team willing to draft the guy who played the best defensive football in the SEC last season.
But if the NFL isn’t ready to handle an openly gay player in its league, shame on it.