Matthew Visinsky/Icon SMI
Matthew Visinsky/Icon SMI

It Only Takes One Team

Michael Sam may face subtle discriminations in the draft process after revealing he’s gay, but the SEC co-defensive player of the year just needs one front office to view him as nothing but a ‘football guy’

By
Andrew Brandt
· More from Andrew·

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.

Gay in the NFL

Wade Davis writes about his night out with Michael Sam before the big announcement, and what it means going foward FULL STORY


Is football ready for an openly gay player? Peter King tackles the question in his Monday Morning Quarterback column FULL STORY

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.

The discussion over the next three months will be less about him coming out and more about his makeup as a “football guy.” This narrative will govern teams’ interrogation of Sam at the combine and beyond.

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.

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43 comments
MacusWalker
MacusWalker

All you normalphobes doing the devils work.  Any media got the guts to stand up and say it is wrong?  Probably not, because the liberals and gays would be all over them calling them names.  That is the loving liberal and democRATic gay agenda for you.  Agree with us, we love you.  Dare to have a different opinion, watch the vile, filthy lies, hate, intolerance, normalphobia, and all around evil come from us!  That is when you know you really have made the devil mad, when he gets his soldiers all riled up on the normal people. 

RazDazBaz
RazDazBaz

Wow, you are a professional writer and you misspelled their as they're in your final sentence. This makes me sad.

feboptimus703
feboptimus703

All the complainers are homophobes Gay men have always been present in gym locker rooms,college dorms, navy vessels, fraternities, and pro sports club houses. The Missouri Tigers had a great season and Sam's teammates weren't even tripping.

What do you people fear? What is the phobia about? Is it that a gay man will check you out, or vice versa.

Dino1967
Dino1967

A few years ago, the US Military scraped the 'don't ask, don't tell' Law. The same arguments were used against the repeal such as showers, and just substitute locker rooms for barracks. No problems have occurred since DADT was kicked to the curb in September 2011. A really good article was written by a Army Lieutenant Colonel titled "A word to the NFL: IF Gay People can died for our country, they can play football." http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/michael-sam-gay-nfl-021014%3Fsrc=rss .

DonRitchie
DonRitchie

I think this article misses the mark by focusing on the "football guy" aspect.  The number one concern of an owner is to make money.  There are plenty of markets - eg Patriots, 49ers - where an openly gay player would be a financial asset that may even offset their ability on the field.

Hell, three teams have hired Tim Tebow so far.

rh2000
rh2000

They be thinkin no frickin way we need this in the locker room.  Let someone else take him and the headache.

ShannonHammock
ShannonHammock

There's a new FaceBook page supporting Michael Sam and the possibility of him becoming the first openly gay NFL draftee. Michael Sam Is Gay? Let Him Play!

frogmn171
frogmn171

well he is a football player and you can't say that he sucks....I still believe he should keep his personal life personal just that PERSONAL!

nastydnot
nastydnot

not everyone  want this don't try to force this on people it is wrong to be this way

nastydnot
nastydnot

Don't everyone accept this seem the media push this on the fans and it is not cool to do so

MooseSD
MooseSD

Heard an anonymous pro athlete quoted on drive-time sports talk radio, saying they would be uncomfortable having a gay teammate with a locker right next to them.  They would be worried about the teammate looking at them "the wrong way".


Question: aren't female media reporters allowed in NFL locker rooms post-game?  How about male reporters that might be gay?  Or team staff, or other teammates who haven't come out?


No big deal here.  A landmark event for sure, but now we all move on.

michaelamericano
michaelamericano

Gents, he didn't have a choice in coming out now. He had already come out to his team at MU and did so privately. People in and around the NFL knew. Reporters were trying to "break" the story. This is not a grab for attention. It's outlined at Outsports here: http://www.outsports.com/2014/2/9/5396036/michael-sam-gay-football-player-missouri-nfl-draft

I'm genuinely surprised by the quantity of negative comments here and elsewhere. Wake up, it's 2014! You all know someone who is gay or lesbian.

I wasn't as tolerant in high school as I am now, but in high school I didn't know any openly gay people. Today, 10% of my coworkers are gay. It's not a big deal. Familiarity breaks down prejudices. The locker room will be fine. The teams will be fine. This needs to happen.

I believe it is unfair that due to perceived prejudice and unfamiliarity that no active player in the NFL, MLB, NBA, or NHL has felt sufficiently comfortable to be honest about his being gay. Enough is enough. Michael Sam, others like him, and the teams that employ them can make that "10 years from now it won't be a big thing" begin to become a reality. Without that, it will always be 10 years away.

joecove
joecove

Dumb move. This dude will have minimal chance to make it now. What team will choose to add this to their locker room? Are you kidding me? The NFL locker room is like 1975 all over again. What veteran is going to enjoy being asked questions weekly about homophobia? What coaches are going to welcome TV reporters at camp and every practice throughout the year? Then, what is he is cut? Face a possible lawsuit based on prejudice? Trust me, he won't be selected until the 6th or 7th round (to avoid a lawsuit), the cut late in camp just to say a team gave him a shot. Then, he will regret losing out on his dream job. Just dumb.

nyhoukcdal
nyhoukcdal

Paragraph 4 - "can he play?"  Well, Mr. former Packer's VP, can he?  He's an all-SEC defender or whatever the award was, and yet I've heard everything from mid-rounds to barely draftable from various analysts.  That's a big range.  Granted it's early, but still... can he play?

Redskins
Redskins

If he is "nothing but a football guy" then why come out?


This is NOT about football, this is about politics and making statements and, if things do not go his way, a lawsuit!


Wake-up and smell what you are shoveling Brandt!

KeepTheDomeLoud
KeepTheDomeLoud

Good article and very true as to the dynamic that will ensue based on his talent level



One housekeeping note:  Bit of clean up needed here methinks There is a mantra that agents tell players as they free agency and the draft: it only takes one team.

AlanMichaels
AlanMichaels

Good article Andrew. However, that last line is garbage. Just stereotypical blabber, "when teams are officially on the clock and they’re true feelings become apparent in their actions."


So, the third round passes and Sam is still on the board. Are you telling me that all 32 teams are prejudiced against a gay man since he wasn't drafted? 4th round comes and Sam still isn't drafted. Your response will be, "Yup, I knew it! All 32 teams are bigoted!" 5th round comes, still on the board. you feel justified in your opinions. Then, finally, he is picked in the 6th round and you backtrack, just a bit, and say 31 teams are bigoted but Team X isn't!


Finally, training camp comes and Sam isn't good enough to make the team. And he gets cut. EVERY single media outlet in the country labels this team as prejudiced.


Is it worth it?

MadDoser
MadDoser

@ShannonHammock  If he is good enough someone will 'let him play'.  There is another article on this site that breaks down his tape of all his games.  Read that.  Afterward you will doubt whether he has the skill to make the NFL.  He will get a shot to make a team.  If it turns out he doesn't make it after getting drafted (or trying out as a undrafted free agent) I don't think its fair to just 'let him play' strictly because he  is the first openly gay player in the NFL.

Dino1967
Dino1967

@DonRitchie Speaking of Tim Tebow, Chris Kluwe was told when playing for the Vikings that the NFL doesn't like their players involved in "controversial issues". Kluwe was/is an outspoken advocate of same-sex marriage. If you all remember, Tebow, when still playing for the FL Gators, appeared in a pro-life commercial with his mom which aired during the 2010 Superbowl. It didn't seem to hurt his draft chances. Last time I checked, abortion was a controversial issue.

Dino1967
Dino1967

@rh2000 Don't need what in the locker room? Michael Sam has certainly showered with other guys before, like for the past four years at the University of Missouri where his teammates all knew that he was gay. Considering their record, he didn't seem to be too much of a headache.

esp
esp

@frogmn171  Tom Brady is married to a supermodel. Romo dated Jessica Simpson. Reggie Bush was with Kim Kardashian. Those are just a few examples. All those guys have had their relationships in the tabloids.


If you believe that no NFL player should ever talk to the media about their girlfriend or wife, then fine, you can believe that. But don't impose a double standard on Michael Sam. Either everyone's personal life, gay and straight, should be kept personal - or no one's should.

o-scar
o-scar

@nastydnot  

No one is being forced to be gay. And, no matter how wrong you think it is, there's no making a gay man straight. No one has the right to make someone change, hide, or give up his career. This is America.

RightCross
RightCross

@michaelamericano You don't understand the NFL at all and your comment is totally useless.  An NFL owner, front office and staff are interested in one thing and one thing only.  Winning.  An NFL owner doesn't owe Michael Sam a thing.  Period.  The front office, coaches, and players work 14-18 hours a day perfecting every part of their team.  Do you really think they have time or energy to deal with the distraction.  Absolutely not.  Especially when you take into consideration that about half the staffs in the league are on the chopping block every season.  No way are they going to waste time and energy on this guy.  By all accounts he's just an ordinary player. There are 50 guys with his talent that come without the drama.


Brandt hit the nail on the head with the Tebow, Ochocinco, etc analogy.  These players would have a job today except for the distraction they bring to an organization.  These teams cannot afford a distraction.  Look at the Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito situation.  That cost the Dolphins the playoffs.  


Another point- all of Sam's teammates are going to get constantly hounded by the media. Every city. These are kids, some of them in their early 20's. What Owner, GM, & Coach is going to put those kids in that position?  If they say the wrong thing, the team will get sued by some ACLU attorney, have the gay parade protesting out front of the stadium on game day, maybe potential violence with drunk, tailgating fans, blah, blah blah.


Michael Sam, whether he had the choice to come out or not is going to suffer the consequences.  Not because he is gay, but because of the attention it brings.  Most people probably don't care who he sleeps with.  I don't.  But I hope my team doesn't draft him. 

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@michaelamericano

You nailed it with your comment! Anybody with a coherent, open mind should read it carefully.

Dino1967
Dino1967

@joecove  Maybe he should have done what Manti Te'o did and make up some dead girlfriend. Apparently people are a lot more comfortable with pretenses than with honesty.

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@joecove

Not an inspired comment. The average NFL locker room is very, very different than 1975. 1975 was only a few years from when the American medical scientific consensus was that homosexuality was abnormal and a mental problem. I can't imagine a thoughtful comment that would be so out of touch with reality. See @michaelamericano's comment for a more astute analysis. Michael Sam had no rational alternative to what he did and when he did it.

Whether Sam makes it or not will depend primarily on what he can offer to a specific team and to the team's ownership's leadership. Brandt's analysis is pretty much right on. The wild card is whether the owner empowers the GM and coach to make a short term decision within a broader context. An owner should tell his GM and coaches I will not micromanage your decision, but I want you to give Michael Sam full consideration and manage any possible distractions. If you can't do that, I'll find someone who can. An owner should say the ultimate decision rests with Sam's competitive contribution, but there is a longer-term value to this team, the NFL, and our society to make it possible for a gay man to be true to himself and be an NFL player. If it's not Sam, I want to know why, and I want you to address this need as soon as possible. The fear of media distraction is a non-starter, and I expect more from you and our players. And by the way, my guess is the players are ahead of you on this issue. Make it happen, and I'm holding you accountable. Any questions?

MadDoser
MadDoser

@nyhoukcdal  The award was "Sec defensive player of the year".  The scheme and the talent around him helped him a lot (plus all his sacks were basically against 3 marginal teams).  There are 3 guys on his Mizz defense alone that will get drafted ahead of him in this draft (and that was before this announcement).  He is a late round pick (if at all) and thats all he was even before this announcement.  

Dino1967
Dino1967

@Redskins How much do you know about Michael Sam? I watched the interview where he came out, and besides saying that he was gay, he talked about his difficult, hardscrabble life like having two brothers in jail. He was a very dedicated player at the University of Missouri and his teammates all knew about his orientation. He seems like an earnest, forthcoming guy with no political agenda, or interest in litigation.

o-scar
o-scar

@Redskins  

Straight "football guys" are allowed to come out, why not gay ones? You really think he is obligated to lie when asked about his girlfriend or his personal life?

JubJub
JubJub

@Redskins  Because he shouldn't have to live in the closet for the rest of his life.  That's why.


This notion that he made himself a media spectacle is absurd.  He chose to come out.  The media chose to make this a big story.  They're the ones who created the spectacle.  That shows a lot more about us than it does about him.  

apgoad21
apgoad21

@psychsports  Man I don't want to be rude, but it is pretty lame that you are posting a link to what is essentially your blog on like, every story I see on here. 

joecove
joecove

@AlanMichaels  Because if he is not quite good enough, he then can cash in with a huge lawsuit. I'd bet high-powered attorneys are already lining up, salivating at the chance to get at the endless pockets of the NFL, and make a name for themselves in the progression of gay civil rights.

Dino1967
Dino1967

@esp @frogmn171 Well said. People have said in response to Michael Sam, "it's no one's business" or we don't need to know about his "personal life". I am like 'okay, fair enough, then take off your wedding ring.'

Dino1967
Dino1967

@RightCross @michaelamericano Funny, back in 2009, the Philly Eagles signed on Michael Vick as Starting QB after he had done time for dogfighting, where he sometimes tortured and killed the canines. It was a matter of some controversy, but I don't remember anyone saying he would be a "distraction".

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@RightCross

It's clear we won't see you in the ranks of NFL owners or GMs, or significant business owners of any organizations. No vision, no plan, go with the flow. Perfect profile for the Browns or the Dophins or other teams who have been out of the playoffs for years.

rh2000
rh2000

@BillRobinson  


So anyone who may have different thoughts on this is not coherent or is with out an open mind?


If someone wants to be gay so be it.  It's not something I believe is right but hey it's their life.


With that said, there are a lot of things that come into play, and if a straight player has an issue with an openly gay person being in the same locker room.  That should be respected and understood that it doesn't make him wrong.


Just because some don't blindly accept the gay lifestyle doesn't make them a bigot.



joecove
joecove

@JubJub @Redskins  The media "chose" to make to a story? Do you live on this planet? He knew full well what the reaction would be, how can you be so naive? He put himself front and centre to force the league into dealing with this issue. Great if he wants a career in politics - not so great for a pro football player hopeful. 

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@joecove

Your cynicism is exceeded only by your ignorance.

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@rh2000

Funny thing - these brave, manly NFL football players are comfortable with guys who are murderers, kill people while DUI, beat-up their wives or girlfriends, abuse alcohol and drugs, but they're not able to cope with a gay guy. How insulting to the vast majority of NFL players. Tell me again how coherent or open-minded that is.

I'm OK with being empathetic to their fears as long as their available choices are (1) try to learn something, (2) man-up and conquer their fears or at least get along, or (3) find another job. People were uncomfortable living near blacks, serving in integrated military units, interracial marriage, black quarterbacks, and a variety of other things; but the world didn't end, and the vast majority of folks figured it out.

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

@rh2000

I have't seen too many anti- Sam comments that were coherent and open-minded. Nor is your's. Just what does your comment that a person being uncomfortable with sharing a locker room with a gay person and we should respect his position mean?

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