NFL prospect Michael Sam’s revelation that he is gay has and will continue to draw strong reactions, largely supportive. To me, the response in 2014 should be more of a shrug, especially to the younger generation. In hearing the news, my two teenage sons hardly broke stride. “Why is that news?” my 16-year old asked. As for NFL attitudes, there are many in decision-making roles who are progressive thinkers—one expressed exasperation to me, saying, “I can’t imagine what closeted LGBT athletes go through day to day”—but there are still a few cavemen in positions of power who stubbornly fight change not just in football but in society at large.
Roger Goodell, whose youngest brother is gay, is among those offering support and encouragement. And while the NFL will certainly support Sam and likely rely on him to be a future ambassador on this issue, the league office does not draft players. The teams hold Michael Sam’s future in their hands—and their support, or lack thereof, will be revealed through actions rather than words.
Comparisons have been made to Jason Collins, the NBA veteran who came out in a Sports Illustrated story last April and remains unsigned. A journeyman center who played for six teams over 12 seasons, Collins was 34 and entering free agency when he came out. It’s my sense that Collins still has the ability to play, but isn’t because teams feared his story would create a distraction that didn’t justify the transaction of bringing him on a bench player. Were Collins a star or even a game-changing talent, that would be overlooked. Because he’s not, it seems NBA teams have passed him over for anonymous players with similar skill-sets. It is this type of bias, a much more subtle form of discrimination than outright homophobia, that Sam might face going into the NFL.
Which begs the obvious question—and the only one that should matter: Can he play?
In last week’s column, I detailed the grind of February draft meetings currently being held by all 32 teams. After months of comprehensive evaluation, scouting departments are filling out player cards listing all the vital metrics—height, weight, 40-speed, broad jump, vertical jump, short and long shuttle times, bench reps of 225 lbs., medical info and so forth—and affixing those cards to The Board in the order of a wish list. The cards may also note character or off-field issues; during my time as Packers vice president from 1999 to 2008, we sometimes printed an image of a cannabis plant on the cards of those whom we had determined to be marijuana users.
As a general rule, NFL scouts care about a player’s ability above all else. They seek answers to common questions asked in football-heavy lingo: Is he a 3-4 or 4-3? Can he drop his hips? Can he set the edge? Does he move well in open space? While attributes such as character and work ethic are discussed, the primary concern of evaluators is always the talent level. After talking to a couple general managers, the NFL scouting community seems to be more concerned with Michael Sam’s ability than his sexual orientation. That said, public statements from teams about Sam—or any draft prospect for that matter—mean very little. Supporting Sam is the socially acceptable thing to do. But in draft rooms around the league, will there be a subtle bias against him? Will teams pass him over in favor of other prospects who are similarly talented but won’t be the subject of so much media attention?
Many teams want “football guys”—a term I constantly heard in Green Bay, and a term I still regularly hear when talking to current personnel executives. In simplest terms, a “football guy” loves working in and around the sport, with other “football guys,” often at the exclusion of other interests, hobbies and pursuits. Teams desire a singular focus from players, as well as other employees in football operations.
I sense the discussion about Sam over the next three months will be less about him coming out and more about his makeup as a “football guy.” It is this narrative, in my opinion, that will govern teams’ interrogation of Sam at the combine and beyond, all the way through the draft in early May. Teams will want to be assured that Sam’s sexual orientation and the accompanying media attention doesn’t detract from his laser-like concentration on being the best player he can be. This question of whether football is “important enough” to him is much more subtle than the issue of sexual preference, but it’s very prominent in the business of football, however cold that may seem. Teams are willing to put on blinders about side issues as long as a player has the talent and the devotion to the game that renders other factors moot.
Which leads to another subtle concern that could affect Sam’s future: maintenance.
NFL teams do not like drama. They are composed of interdependent parts working toward a collective goal; teams want players to selflessly do their jobs and quietly fall in line. Of course, it doesn’t always work that way. Players sometimes, for a variety of reasons, venture out of the cocoon into public view. These attention grabs often involve contract disputes, but no matter the reason, a team’s antennae become raised and that player becomes viewed as higher maintenance than the rank and file.
I am often asked about players who step out of the silent bubble. My answer is always the same: a player can do so without fear of consequence, no matter how subtle, if he is a superior talent, with the leverage of elite playmaking ability. A player who is “just another guy” forces front offices to consider a risk/reward equation when there is increased media attention.
This is where the prospects of Sam may be affected, though through no fault of his own. In every city his team travels to, local media and the national broadcast team will request him for interviews, even if he isn’t going to be a factor in that week’s game. He will draw intense reaction, both positive and negative, wherever he goes. And as much as the team accepts him—I do not think the “locker room issue” is a major one here—there will be those outside the organization who will not.
As its appears to have happened with Jason Collins in the NBA, teams may find subtle excuses for passing on Sam, saying they want a different defensive end, perhaps a taller one, or they have other needs, or they don’t have him rated as high as other teams. We may never know if they simply do not want the publicity and the potential distraction, and therefore see less risk in similarly talented, more anonymous players.
Although Sam presents a completely different set of circumstances, consider the following cases. Is Tim Tebow good enough to be a developmental quarterback in the NFL? Yes. Are Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco good enough to earn NFL roster spots as backup wide receivers? Yes. Is Chris Kluwe a good enough punter to still earn an NFL roster spot? Yes. Will any of these players find future employment in the NFL? Highly unlikely. Teams have determined that the “maintenance” of players with average talent quotients doesn’t warrant a roster spot.
It is interesting that some NFL teams are willing to bring players into their locker room with pasts that include sexual assault, domestic violence and DUI convictions, but they might view Sam’s honesty about his sexual orientation as a distraction. There is a mantra that agents tell players as they enter free agency or the draft: it only takes one team. A story will follow Sam through the early stages of his career; it will just take one team to accept that extra attention as part of accepting him. Not just as a gay man, but as a “football guy” who can help the team. No matter what is said over the new few months, the moment of truth will arrive in early May, when teams are officially on the clock and they’re true feelings become apparent in their actions.