Michael Sam and the Storm
How the NFL reacts to its first openly gay prospect will speak volumes
As we approach the NFL Scouting Combine and Draft, all the talk has shifted from the top-shelf players — Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel — to a player projected to be a mid-rounder just a couple weeks ago: University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who rocked the testosterone-fueled pigskin world by announcing earlier this month that he's gay.
The All-American and Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year, Sam was vital to his squad. He was also a rarity — a player known to be gay by teammates who protected his secret and valued his play regardless.
Sam reportedly wanted to come out before the Senior Bowl in January, but his agent talked him down. Sam then planned to come out sometime between that game and the combine in May, but reporters started approaching him with pointed questions about his dating life, in effect pressing the issue.
So Sam announced. A shitstorm ensued.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated posted an article full of on-background sources claiming that coming out would damage Sam's draft stock. This quote, from an unnamed general manager, seems the most salient: "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."
Some Jaguars would disagree. Uche Nwaneri staked out this rather evolved position to ESPN: "I would welcome a gay teammate same as any other. Something about team sports really transcends color and orientation. In between the lines, it's all football. Purest form of it. I don't know how it will play out in specific locker rooms around the league, but I know that as adults and professionals, the only thing that should matter is the game and the team."
Tyson Alualu — the first-round DE whose future here isn't too secure as it is — tweeted that he could play with Sam, and that "if he's a good player and the best available when the Jaguars pick, I think they'll take him."
(Other players I contacted declined to comment.)
Maybe Nwaneri and Alualu are right. Certainly, there have been gay Jags before this. Esera Tuaolo had a cup of coffee with the franchise in the 1990s; he outed himself after his playing days were over. Likewise, there were persistent rumors about a certain wideout during the expansion year.
Speaking of wideouts from the old days, I asked Jimmy Smith what he thought about the Jags drafting Sam. He didn't equivocate. "No," said Smith. "I heard he didn't perform well at the Senior Bowl."
Of course, that Senior Bowl performance might have been marred by the off-field drama. And really, how much stock can we put in the Senior Bowl when it comes to predicting a player's pro stock? The bigger strike against Sam is that most of his production last year came against a punchless Florida offense and other Weak Sisters of the SEC.
In any event, Smith is more worried about what Sam does on the field than off — and that's a good thing for the sport.
The NFL, and its approach to human resource management, is always going to be a balancing act, in which the inevitable evolution of social mores is weighed against the inertia of tradition and fear of disruption. The players will always be ahead of the curve in a way the larger organization won't. The case of Michael Sam will illustrate just how far ahead — or behind — the curve the locker rooms and GM offices really are.