When Michael Sam told his University of Missouri teammates he was gay before last season, it wasn’t a big deal. It’s a safe bet that NFL teams – who know what kind of gum their prospects chew – already knew this, too. But when Sam came out publicly, it changed the equation.
The NFL has already had gay players, so that’s not new. But publicly declaring you’re gay is new – and so is the onslaught of media attention.
After Sam came out, he dropped from a projected fourth- or fifth-rounder to the seventh and final round. Part of the reason was surely homophobia – though that term isn’t accurate. To paraphrase Morgan Freeman, “If you’re homophobic, you’re not afraid of homosexuals. You’re just an A-hole.”
But the NFL teams that passed on Sam probably had other reasons, too. Yes, Sam was named defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, but he’s not a complete player. He’s great at sacking quarterbacks, but not at covering the run. At the NFL Combine, his numbers for speed and strength weren’t impressive.
But I’ll bet the biggest reason teams skipped him in the draft was a much bigger fear: Not homosexuality, but distractions. You don’t have to hang around football coaches very long before you hear their most-hated word – “distractions” – about a hundred times. Coaches are maniacally focused individuals – and they expect their players to be that way, too.
When the St. Louis Rams spared the league an embarrassing black eye by drafting Sam, a few eyebrows went up when Sam celebrated by kissing his boyfriend on live TV. Some people felt uncomfortable – but as ESPN’s Jamele Hill said, “Blacks and whites would still be drinking from separate water fountains if we waited for folks to be comfortable.”
The good news is that the vast majority of reactions to Sam being drafted – from fans, writers and NFL players – were unequivocally positive. Only a relative few embarrassed themselves with predictably ignorant responses.
And that’s why Sam’s next move was so befuddling. Having won the war, he decided to lose the battle – or his handlers did. Soon after he was drafted, and publicly welcomed by his teammates, he repeatedly said he wanted to be judged only as a football player, and keep his private life private. Fair enough. But then he signed a side deal with Oprah’s production company for a reality show based on his life, on and off the field.
Commentators who had publicly supported Sam’s decision to come out, now pointed out the hypocrisy of talking the talk, but walking the other way. Sam’s handlers and producers – who all stood to make millions off the reality show – had to be convinced by the team to drop the idea. And it took a lot of convincing.
So, for now, things have settled down. Sam has gone back to what he claimed he always wanted to be: just a football player. He has plenty of work to do just to make the team, and even if he does, the average career for an NFL player is about three years. The NFL stands for “Not For Long.”
The trickiest terrain still lies ahead. And it’s not on the field, and it’s not with the fans, or even Sam’s teammates. It’s with his advisers, who threaten to plunder his chance to make a difference before his career even starts.
They need to let Sam be himself, and do his job. That’s enough for any man.