Michael Sam is one of the largest stories of the past few years. And while he is no longer the focal point of 55 out of 60 minutes on Sports Center (the other 5 are Top Ten and Stephen A. Smith yelling), he continues to captivate a larger audience and bring about deep discussion about the prevalence of homophobic ideals both in the arena of sport and society as a whole.
Growing up in Texas, Michael Sam has led a difficult life. He has seven siblings, three of which are passed and two in prison, divorced parents, was homeless for a period of time, and grew up in Texas. Normally growing up in Texas would bring about a normal childhood and maybe affection for Nolan Ryan that is a little overblown. But in the case of Sam, he had to deal with growing up as a homosexual male, which both in a conservative town in Texas, and being a member of the black community, Sam dealt with his share of problems. As a high-schooler Sam was a two star recruit, who decided on the University of Missouri after his senior season. Sam was a middle of the road player, averaging around 4 sacks a year, before exploding his senior year with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss, leading to being named SEC Co-Defensive player of the year. Before his senior season, Sam shared his sexual preference privately with his team.
Unfortunately for Sam, the last game of his senior season was the pinnacle of his career. As he began to prepare for the NFL draft, he was perceived as undersized at his defensive end position for the professional level, and played in the senior bowl as an outside linebacker. While he struggled in the game, he was still projected to be drafted in the fourth round. Then a weak performance in the NFL combine (capped by a 4.9 40-yard dash) led to some doubts to Sam’s potential, regardless of his prominence in college.
Sam then announced his sexual preference to Outside the Lines reporter Chris Connolly in February 2014 before the upcoming draft.
Sam fell to the seventh round in the impending draft. While his “measureables” didn’t stack up to what most NFL scouts look for, the SEC defensive player of the year was taken pick 249 out of 256; Many speculate that this was because of his sexual orientation. This was in a sort of terms confirmed, as Sports Illustrated has off the record statements stating Sam would fall because of his announcement. Barack Obama lauded the decision, stating he “congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey” and that “from the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove every day that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are.”
As preseason came around, Sam was mediocre at best, yet his Jersey sold second of all Rookies in the 2014 season. He made it to the last round of cuts, yet did not make the 53 man roster.
This issue is one that has clouded my brain for the almost two years that it has clouded my brain and newsfeed. While I understand the importance of equal rights, societal change, political correctness, progressive inclusion, and value of your fellow man, a small part of me continues to hesitate when thinking about an openly gay athlete in the NFL. While I know that it needs to happen, all of the media attention and potential problems rub me the wrong way. And while I feel it is immensely important change like this occur, I hate that it was a seventh round pick to try to make the charge. Jackie Robinson didn’t break the color barrier by being a decent fielder; he was one of, if not the, greatest player to ever play the game. While Abby Wambach is a homosexual athlete, she has appeared in two world cups and is arguably the best women’s player of our generation. Billie Jean King, Oscar Pistorius, Don Haskins…The list goes on. But all of these athletes who broke down racial, societal, and gender roles all had one thing in common, and that is that these were elite athletes. These weren’t seventh round picks; they were some of the greatest in their sports history. Olympic medalists, NCAA championship coaches, and Wimbledon winners, and yet Sam is seen as the herald of change in the NFL. The problem is not homophobia in the NFL, but instead that Sam wasn’t good enough to break the barrier. Are there systematic obstacles that players face? Definitely. Is there consistent discrimination of gay athletes and regular citizens? Of course. But the reason there isn’t an openly gay athlete starting for the St Louis Rams in the upcoming season is because he wasn’t good enough. He fell into the gap of positions, is undersized, slow, and an all-around mediocre player at best. If Aaron Rogers came out of the closet, or Rob Gronkowski identified as a sexual man, no one in the league would dare cut them. No amount of homophobic ideals will overcome the value of a Super Bowl or a full stadium of a winning team.
The Tebow Effect
And while an elite athlete would without a doubt be welcomed into the NFL with open arms, there is still another reason that teams have to take a second thought before taking any player with off the field questions: Do you want to bring that into your locker room? The answer should be yes, but there is an unquestionable distraction with players like Sam, Tebow, or Chad Ochocinco in your locker room. And in no world am I comparing the people of Michael Sam or Mr. Ochocinco, but you can compare the media circus that comes with socially controversial individuals. In my opinion, the media has put up as much of a roadblock to homosexual and other marginalized individuals as much as any sporting organization or team.
I applaud Michael Sam’s courage. I praise his college career. But I can’t feel sorry for a four/nine forty and 6’2” defensive end, and question whether he was victimized, or simply weeded out.
This article was written by Kenneth Haskins, a student at the University of Florida