Michael Sam is gay.
This short and simple sentence has had a major ripple effect that has extended beyond just the world of sports. Of course, this sentence really shouldn’t matter. Who one finds oneself attracted to does not affect your physical ability to perform a task on the field. Period. And if you think that a young athlete that played in the football-obsessed SEC has not dealt with hostile and unruly fans and developed some level of mental strength, I’d say you are probably wrong. Then, consider that Sam has endured a difficult upbringing. He saw a brother die of a gunshot wound. His other brothers have been consistently in and out of jail since they were in 8th grade. By his own admission, coming out was not nearly as hard as some of the other trials and tribulations he and his family have admirably survived.
Nonetheless, the announcement of Sam’s sexual orientation has not stopped pundits from wondering about the effect on the NFL prospect’s draft status. Of course, in a perfect world, a world that I would hope is not that far from reality, sexual orientation would alter the draft prospects of Sam as much as if he preferred Pepsi over Coke. It just shouldn’t matter. And, of course, we’ll never know how much Sam’s courageous announcement truly affects his status. The NFL Draft is unpredictable and there is no comic-book-esque, alternate universe where we know where Sam is drafted as if he never made the announcement.
Sadly, a simple Internet search will show you that many draft experts believe the announcement will certainly negatively affect Sam’s draft position. While top officials of the NFL, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Commissioner Roger Goodell have expressed support for Sam, an article published by Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback (MMQB) mentioned that (off the record) a few general managers have stated a belief that Sam’s draft stock will fall.
Why would Sam’s announcement hurt his draft status?
One obvious answer is homophobia within the football community. It isn’t an argument I buy into completely. In the same MMQB article cited above, one NFL scout did mention that some NFL locker rooms were still “stuck in the ‘50s.” While there will certainly be some level of unwarranted discomfort by small groups, I just don’t think it will be as bad as some expect within the locker room. Sam did come out to his team at Missouri in August and it didn’t tear that team apart. In fact, the team thrived, including playing in the SEC Championship Game. And Sam earned awards for his play, including Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC. With progress for gay rights slowly occurring across the country, I think most young football players won’t feel alienated by the presence of a gay player in the locker room. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’m also hopeful.
An equally contributing factor to the perceived drop in draft status is what I term, “The Tim Tebow Effect.” With the exception of the Patriots and backing up Tom Brady, media would swarm almost any team that showed any interest in Tebow. Not to mention Skip Bayless would begin his hysterics on ESPN. All of this hullabaloo for a backup quarterback. Maybe even a third-stringer.
In a similar fashion, Michael Sam will bring media attention with him wherever he signs. And not just from sports fans. Like Jason Collins earlier this year, Michael Sam will be a part of the national news cycle. Before Sam came out, he was projected as a 3rd to 4th rounder. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. had him as a late 4th rounder. A lot of teams are gun shy about bringing the media circus to town for a draft pick in the lower half. Their nightmare scenario? If Michael Sam legitimately doesn’t succeed at the NFL level (a perfectly plausible occurrence for a 4th round pick), teams will face the scrutiny of if Sam failed because of homophobia or other discriminatory treatment.
Is it right? Absolutely not. I personally like to think of sports as the ultimate meritocracy. If you can hack it and play the position, it shouldn’t matter if you are gay or straight, rich or poor, black, white or any other race. If you can help a team win, you should get your shot. Are we there yet? Definitely not. However, I’m hoping that Michael Sam is the next step in the evolution of the culture of sports.