The NFL’s Big Test
Is the NFL ready for an openly gay player? We’ve been asking that question for a while, but after draft prospect Michael Sam’s brave coming out on Sunday night, there's a face at the center of the discussion. Opinions are mixed as to the answer, but one thing's clear: We're going to find out very soon
The news spread quickly across the NFL Sunday night. Then again, The New York Times report about mid-round draft prospect Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive end, coming out as gay two weeks before the scouting combine and 12 weeks before the draft wasn’t a surprise to every team in the league.
I spoke to four club officials Sunday—three general managers, one scout—and the reaction to a third-round prospect being gay ran the gamut. I spoke to all anonymously, because with such a touchy subject, I assumed all would either no-comment me (and one other GM did) or say something so sanitized it wouldn’t really be the truth. I don’t like to do anonymous sources to write an entire story, but I felt in this case it would give the best information possible.
“Should I really care?” one GM said. “Is it going to be that big a deal? Aren’t we beyond this?”
“It’s not a shocking thing to me, and it won’t be to our organization,” another GM said. “You’ll have old-school guys on your team saying, ‘Are you kidding, putting this guy on our team?’ And you’ll have other guys say, ‘Who cares? I knew two gay guys who came out in college.’ ”
“It’ll totally depend on your leadership,” the scout said. “A team with strong leadership at coach and in the locker room, like New England, I would imagine, would be okay. I could see Belichick say, ‘This is the way it is. There’s no story.’ And guys would just accept him. There’d be no choice. But without that strong leadership, I could see it being divisive, and I could see a team saying, ‘We don’t need this.’ ”
Two team reps didn’t know the story when we spoke, with me not naming names and simply asking what would happen if, as I expected, a gay player would be coming out before the combine. One GM said he’d heard that Sam might be the player. But the fourth, a general manager, said he not only knew the story and that Sam was the player, but that his team had discussed it at draft meetings in the past few days.
“We talked about it this week,” the GM said. “First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: He’s going to have expectations about where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
I asked this general manager: “Do you think he’ll be drafted?”
“No,” he said.
Sam is from Hitchcock, Texas, near Galveston on the Gulf Coast. He led the SEC this year in combined sacks and tackles for loss and was voted the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. But he is smallish for an NFL defensive end or pass rushing outside linebacker at 6-1 ½ and 260 pounds. He earned unanimous first-team All-America honors for Missouri, and teamed with first-round prospect Kony Ealy to form one of the best pressure rushing combinations in college football. Before the bombshell, Sam was rated as a third- or fourth-round prospect by many draft outlets. Mel Kiper had him as a fourth-rounder, pre-announcement, on ESPN Sunday night.
As a 4-3 defensive end in college football, his size is good and acceptable, even if he’s not as athletic as some smaller defensive ends. But NFL personnel people fear that a player of his size who is not very quick will be neutralized by the bigger, athletic NFL tackles. But there are some teams that use lots of situational pass rushers who could find a role for Sam if he were a good and willing special-teams ace. And it’s likely he would be. He has a reputation for being a team guy willing to do what his coaches ask. His teammates at Missouri obviously like him a lot. He told them about his sexuality before last season, and they kept his secret for him.
“I just wanted to make sure I could tell my story the way I wanted to,” Sam told the Times. “I just want to own my truth.”
Three of the four men had praise for Sam for coming out before the combine. Whatever the reason for Sam’s wanting to make his sexuality public, doing it now allows teams to meet on the issue, discuss it at length and interview him about it. “The big factor here is that the initial storm will come now, and not after he’s drafted, like maybe he was trying to hide it,” one GM said. “That’s a big factor in his favor. Very big.”
As this GM said, if a player makes a bombshell announcement before the combine and allows every team to interrogate him about it, he stands a better chance of the story burning out before the player ever reports to training camp. What could doom the player, he said, would be hiding this when it was likely to come out—either by the player or some other way. Teams do not like surprises. If they knew Sam came out to his team at Missouri last year—which is the word on the NFL street—and then wouldn’t tell teams before the draft, his team could feel betrayed.
The first GM—the one who seemed not to be fazed by the announcement—asks the questions that much of society would ask. Should this matter as much as it will matter over the next few days? But Jonathan Vilma, the veteran Saints linebacker and team leader, told NFL Network last week he thought a gay player “would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted.”
“Unfortunately,” the scout said, agreeing with Vilma, “this is a lot more okay in society than it is in lots of locker rooms. Some locker rooms are still stuck in the ’50s.”
That’s why it’s naïve to suggest Sam’s coming out will have no effect on where he’s drafted, as the respected Kiper said on ESPN Sunday night. It could be that a liberal owner and progressive coach like Jeffrey Lurie and Chip Kelly of the Eagles will not care at all, and if he’s there in the fourth or fifth round will grab him.
I believe the majority of teammates wherever Sam goes will be accepting and supportive. But we’ve just seen the damage caused by the Incognito/Martin fracas in Miami, and the quasi-caveman attitude shown all too often by players. And the team that takes Sam has to know what the trailblazing aspect of his presence will bring: the news shows as well as sports shows, the constant buzz when the team goes on the road, the slurs bound to come his way sometime. And they’ll have to decide if it’s worth it to say they’re going to do the right thing and admit a human being who is gay to the team.
During the draft, a team that has Sam graded barely above another pass-rush prospect in the third or fourth round may ask itself: Will all the distractions—the network news trucks, the questioning of his teammates about accepting a gay teammate—be worth it? Or should we just draft the other guy and not worry about Sam’s off-field stuff?
The Michael Sam news cycle has just begun. The NFL’s a very big deal in our society. Now we’ll see if he can be a football player only, and not the center of attention to the media and 32 teams in the league.
“We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014,” the NFL said in a statement Sunday night.
Everyone hopes that’s true.