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Four Decades Along the Rainbow Road

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

History Will Have to Wait

It was the day the entire sports world was watching.  Would Michael Sam, an openly gay man, survive yet another round of cuts by the St. Louis Rams and in the process make history?  No other player on the “bubble” received such national scrutiny.  As NFL teams were mandated to trim their final rosters to 53 by 4 p.m. EDT on August 30, all eyes were on the St. Louis Rams who drafted Sam in the seventh and final round this past May. 

Photo by mtv.com
Instead of sacking quarterbacks Sam was sacked; he did not survive the final cut.  According to NFL rules, Sam and all those cut became available to the other 31 teams of which any of them could claim him.  None did. 
As such, Sam became the first openly gay player to be drafted by an NFL team, not the first to play in the NFL regular season. 

The fact that Sam was drafted at all was surprising to most football experts.  Although a standout performer during his collegiate career—he was the Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year for the University of Missouri in 2013—he did not fare well at NFL’s combine.  The combine is an auditioning process that takes place for a week in front of coaches, general managers and scouts.
Sam was picked 249th out of 256, and the news of his being drafted by the Rams reverberated around the world.  So did his passionate kiss on the mouth of his boyfriend carried live by ESPN. 

The selection by St. Louis lifted the spirits of LGBT America.  At the time, President Obama said he “congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward today in our Nation’s journey.”
However, analysts and those in the football industry said Sam was too small for a defensive lineman position while he was too slow to be a linebacker.  It would be an uphill climb for Sam to make a team that already was deep in the lineman position.

Jeff Fisher, head coach of the Rams, gave Sam every opportunity.  In fact, it was Fisher who called Sam to give him the good news about the selection, leading to the tearful celebration with his boyfriend.  Who among us did not shed a tear or two along with him?  His number 96 Rams’ jersey became the sixth biggest seller among NFL players’ jerseys through July 17.
But Michael Sam lost out in a numbers game.  The Rams, who kept nine defensive linemen, chose to retain undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks over Sam.  While their statistics were similar, Westbrooks provided the versatility to play all four defensive line positions, while Sam had been playing virtually exclusively as a left defensive end.

Those who blog about homophobia in sports believed that Sam’s release from the team was a merely a football decision. 
“We believe Sam was cut for purely football reasons and there is zero evidence that it had anything to do with him being gay,” wrote Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com. “The Rams organization, from General Manager Les Snead to Fisher to the players, treated Sam as just another player, even though they were aware of his historic nature. Snead and Fisher even attended the ESPYs in Los Angeles in July, where Sam received the Arthur Ashe Award for courage.”

 Could it be that Sam would provide an unwelcome distraction just as the 2014 season was poised to kick off?

Coach Fisher made a point at his news conference announcing the cuts that Sam was not a distraction.  He explained he was in Michael Sam’s corner from the start and that having the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team was no distraction at all in training camp.
“Mike’s got the ability to play someplace. It’s got to be the right place, it’s got to be a fit,” Fisher explained. “He’s a much better player now than he was when he got here.”

He added, “We’re proud to be a part of [history], it was a great experience, but there were no issues. I just think there was a lot more made of it that there should have been.”
Oh, that distraction thing! Just prior to the August 30 deadline, an ESPN correspondent released a shameful ill-advised report of Sam’s showering habits and how that related to his teammates on the Rams.  Following the expected firestorm from a multitude of LGBT rights organization to comedian Jon Stewart, ESPN made a public apology.

While the Rams are deep in defensive linemen, that could not be said for all of the remaining 31 teams who passed Michael Sam up.  Could it be that Sam would provide an unwelcome distraction just as the 2014 season was poised to kick off?
That’s the million dollar question—one that is unlikely to be answered by NFL officials.  Clearly, the distraction factor from the media had to have been considered as teams evaluated the possibility of claiming Sam.  The Rams insisted the locker room culture was not negatively impacted by Sam’s presence.  The players acted professionally and did their jobs.  So did Michael Sam.  But apparently other teams are not yet ready.

Some believe that Michael Sam by declaring publicly that he is gay rolled the dice and put his chances for an NFL career at risk, though the rumors about his sexual orientation had already surfaced.
After the deadline to claim Sam passed, Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization focused on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports, tweeted, “Beginning to think that if Michael Sam stayed silent about his sexual orientation he would currently be signed to an NFL roster or psquad.”

However, Michael Sam has been picked up by the Dallas Cowboys to play on their practice squad.  That could lead to a chance to be on the roster and play with the team but it’s no certainty.  In the meantime, and until he does play on the 53-man roster, history will have to wait.


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