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Sunday, May 11, 2014

History Made in the NFL

Michael Sam drafted in the 7th round; becomes first openly gay player 
As people around the country were tuning in to the National Football League draft extravaganza that took place May 8-10, there was a little more interest than usual in the 2014 version than in previous years.  For in this cycle, there was the possibility (and hope) that an openly gay man, Michael Sam, a defensive end who was a star at the University of Missouri, could have his name called by an NFL team and break the rainbow barrier to become the first ever openly gay man to play in the nation’s most lucrative professional sports league. 

After 248 out of 256 players heard their names called  during the otherwise tedious process that will dramatically change these young men’s lives, hope began to melt into concern and then rationalization as the 7th and final round was slowly progressing and still no word of Michael Sam, 24, from Hitchcock, Texas.  
Will the NFL do the right thing or are the executives still not as progressive on social issues as many of their players?  Is Michael Sam really too slow to be a linebacker and even at 6 foot 2, 260 lbs. too small to be a defensive end in the pros based on a series of physical tests that had taken place at a rigorous audition known as the combine?  Will any team take the risk of having a gay player and potentially cause a distraction in the locker room?  Will the media cause its own distraction?

Analysts at ESPN who dutifully provided all the insight one would want (or could take) during the three-day draft proceedings also speculated on whether or not Sam had the right stuff.  The first-team All-American and 2013 Southeast Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year did not have the “numbers” or the size or quickness to be a likely draft pick.  Moreover, some team scouts told the media anonymously that when Sam disclosed his sexual orientation in an interview with ESPN in February, his stock had fallen. 
The in-draft analysts on ESPN, nonetheless, effusively praised Sam’s character and work ethic and “motor”.   Sam should be taken in the draft if a team a club needs a special team player or a pass rusher, they opined, and they encouraged his rooters that even if not drafted, he could be invited to a team’s training camp and be signed as an undrafted free agent as 47 did last year.  A development like that could even be more beneficial to him.
Yet something akin to a Hollywood script unfolded.  As the number of available picks was perilously dwindling to a precious few late Saturday afternoon—only eight remained—Michael Sam received the phone call from St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Fisher.  “You are a Ram,” said Fisher. “The wait is finally over.”
Sam was seen on ESPN breaking down and sobbing at the news in real time, barely audibly thanking Fisher. He was in the arms of his boyfriend Vito Cammisano, and then they kissed for several moments—something ESPN did not cut away from as one would have expected not that long ago.
“This is a football decision,” Fisher said. “We are very, very comfortable with everything about him”—high praise indeed.  “We weren't going to miss the opportunity to add an outstanding player to our roster,” he added.
St. Louis is a good fit for Sam as it is only a two-hour drive from Columbia, MO where Sam excelled at the University of Missouri.  People are familiar with him and he is well respected there.
Reactions were mostly positive, and they poured in from everywhere.  The President of the United States weighed in.  “From the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove everyday that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are,” Obama said. He also congratulated the NFL and the St. Louis Rams.
The historic breakthrough was not lost on LGBT civil rights leaders.  “We congratulate Michael Sam and the St. Louis Rams on their terrific decision to draft him,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin in a statement. “Today, LGBT young people can look to Sam as proof that being open and proud of who you are doesn’t keep you from achieving your dreams.  Gay people are our neighbors and friends.  They’re our United States Senators and, starting today, they're our professional football stars.”
Although he was drafted by the Rams, Michael Sam is not guaranteed to make the team.  But it is a trail blazing moment as was the signing of out NBA player Jason Collins earlier in the year.  With pressure mounting on the NFL to present a better image and the encouragement from its commissioner Roger Goodell, Sam’s ability and heart plus overwhelming support from fans and the media, Sam should succeed.

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