What Michael Sam Means For the NFL
Michael Sam is gay. He’s great at football and he’s openly gay, in that order. And before both of those, he’s a 23-year-old who just made a big decision. He’s going to play in the NFL next season and it’s important. Starting today, the pigskin is no longer in his court.
Sam, a first-team All-American defensive end at Mizzou last season, led the SEC in sacks and tackles for loss and is going to get drafted and play in the League. It’s not like he’s a fringe player or it’s questionable that he might get drafted. He’s got the skills and athleticism and character that NFL teams look for. A lot of the coverage of Sam’s announcement has forecasted him as maybe the first openly-gay NFL player, but there’s no way “maybe” is the right word, he’s going to make a roster and he’s going to play.
The thing about Michael Sam is that he’s already proven what he is on the field, he’s more decorated than any other SEC defensive player, including the possible first overall draft pick.
I’d love to get more into what Michael Sam is off the field, but I don’t know much about him that isn’t already being reported. He’s a pretty incredible story. He had two older siblings die very young, another brother who went missing and a couple of brothers who are serving time in jail. Even when you don’t take into account his decision to announce his homosexuality, he’s been through a lot and his perseverance is remarkable. I take in a lot of Mizzou coverage, and I’ve never read a bad word about the guy. It doesn’t seem so strange now, but for an All-American, he was drastically under-covered last season.
Coming out in an interview for national television is certainly courageous and honest, but it seems like the story of his homosexuality was never really hidden to begin with. The biggest story of Sam’s bravery might have been what unfolded since last summer when he made the decision to be open about it. He told his teammates about his sexuality (in his interview with Chris Connelly, Sam said he came out to his Mizzou teammates last summer and was met with support), the pro scouts knew and a Sports Illustrated piece about Sam revealed that most NFL teams knew.
If you haven’t seen his interview, here it is:
The truth is that it seems like Sam may have just seen the story emerging as he left the friendly confines of Mizzou’s facilities and entered the less controlled media environment of the NFL combine and draft camps. He may have just worked with ESPN to tell the story from his perspective before rumors could get ahead of him and make the story different.
As far as we know, Michael Sam’s story is told. The book isn’t shut on him yet, but decisions are done being made on his part. The real telling part of Michael Sam’s story is going to be how the rest of the NFL reacts.
The Sports Illustrated piece about Sam quotes some unnamed sources and casts a pretty negative light on his draft stock. I get it. If an NFL exec sincerely thinks that it’s going to affect the locker room and make the other 52 players worse, it makes sense not to draft him. They choose who they pay to play, it’s as simple as that.
But all those scouts or front office types who think it will impact the other players must have missed every game he played last year. If a gay player is so detrimental to the locker room chemistry, then the nearly-impossible run of the 12-2 Tigers to an SEC championship game bid was even more unlikely. The vaunted Mizzou defense, the one that came into the season expected to perform among the worst in the league and ended up among the best in the nation, was even more impressive.
If a gay player really destroys team chemistry by making the other players uneasy, it’s impossible to explain what happened in Columbia last year. The NFL is a different game than the college game, but the early stages of this experiment seem to suggest pretty strongly that football ability beats sexual preference on the football field. When it comes to football, Michael Sam is a winner.
As a Mizzou alumnus, I watched every game the Tigers played and Sam never had any problems with any teammates. He was a motivator. No one treated him differently and at least externally, it wasn’t a big deal. Internally, neither Sam nor anyone else at Mizzou has given the slightest hint that it was difficult to deal with.
There’s going to be a lot of stories about Sam changing the way the NFL operates. About how he’s changing opinions. Here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for his teammates or the brass. I think the entire Sam thing is about revealing attitudes more than it’s about changing attitudes.
I don’t think he’s going to meet undue criticism. I think he’s going to be hazed as a rookie for being new to the team and exclusively for being new to the team.
As a football fan, I’m proud to say that Michael Sam and I graduated from the same school. As a person, I’m even more proud. I’m happy that I support a coaching staff and a team who listened when a teammate had something to say and were reliable, unrelenting sources of support for him.
I’m happy that the team 12-2 and made the SEC championship game in its second season as a member of the conference. I’m happy that they won the Cotton Bowl. I’m beyond excited that before the discussion about a gay athlete negatively impacting team chemistry started for real, my alma mater provided some serious proof against it.
I’m positive that I speak for the rest of the staff of SpreeGoogs when I wish Michael Sam the best. This situation has revealed him to be a mature, honest person and the door is now open for a mature, honest football team to get a little bit better by adding him.