Forgive us, Michael Sam

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This was supposed to be a celebrated event. A monumental breakthrough in sports and a landmark moment for society as a whole. Something we can look back on years later when this sort of thing is a cultural norm and recall where we were when Michael Sam announced to the world that he was gay.

It lasted about 12 hours.

In the wake of all the optimism and support of Michael Sam’s announcement yesterday, has come what basically equates to a smear campaign to discredit him. The most troubling part about it all? It’s being led by the NFL. To those of us who consider ourselves affiliated with football – whether by fandom or writing about the NFL – this is particularly troubling. There are those out there (like myself) who support and applaud Sam’s courage for coming out. But to the outside world, football – and to a degree, sports in general – is, and will likely always be, a world full of pigheaded, insensitive Richie Incognito types. That’s to say, a world where gays aren’t welcomed.

The University of Missouri football team certainly did everything to try and disprove that theory, but Mizzou isn’t the NFL. And if front office executives, GM’s and coaches want to cover up their own bigotry by perpetuating the theory that Sam is an average (or worse) football player, then there’s a good chance that it’ll happen. In fact, it’s already happening. Here are just a few quotes from Peter King’s ‘The MMQB’ article from several NFL GM’s:

“First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation.”

“How will drafting him affect your locker room?”

“A lot of guys will be uncomfortable”

“It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room”

When King asked another GM whether he thinks Sam will even be drafted, the answer was, “No.”

Overrated. Affect the locker room. Not drafted. These are the words to describe a guy who led the fifth-ranked defense in the nation in sacks, earned All-American status and who won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award. In case you’re not a football fan, the SEC is regarded as the closest thing to an NFL preparatory course with more active players from the SEC in the pros than any other conference in college football:

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But even more troubling than the words that were said was the fact that we don’t know who said them. Staying close to the vest with draft strategy is nothing new, but this wasn’t entirely about that. It was about Sam’s announcement. The barriers he shattered. The reaction to it all. And when the NFL’s leaders – the very men who will decide Sam’s place in the NFL – had a chance to step up and support Sam in this watershed moment, they all chickened the fuck out.

It was your quintessential white collar cowardice but the nameless, faceless quotes from these GM’s tell a deeper story. Where Michael Sam is trailblazing a new path for other gay athletes, the NFL is laying the groundwork for an exit strategy. If they went on the record as being against Sam, they’re revealed as a bigot. If they go on the record in support of him and don’t draft Sam (especially if they could use a 6’4 260 lb. linebacker or defensive end) they’ll be held to the fire and asked why they didn’t draft him. Thus, you have the quotes above. By staying anonymous, no GM has to answer the uncomfortable questions that will inevitably follow should Sam find himself without an NFL team to play for.

If the CBS draft tracker is any indication, that’s now a real possibility. In just 18 hours, Sam’s draft position has plummeted 70 spots – from 90 overall to 160:

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That doesn’t just happen without people knowing some things. Peter King interviewed a total of three GM’s and one scout who said, “Unfortunately, this is a lot more okay in society than it is in lots of locker rooms.”  Something tells me that scout isn’t alone in his thinking.

Over the next few months, more comments like the quotes above are likely to be echoed and even intensified by more anonymous sources. He’s too small. He’s too slow. He’s too stiff.

What they really mean is, he’s too gay.

As someone who loves football, it’s a shame to see a sport I follow so closely still stuck in such a sectarian way of thinking. Peter King’s column was appropriately titled, ‘The NFL’s Big Test.’ In witnessing the death of his brother, in seeing another brother go missing, persevering at the University of Missouri and of course, in mustering up the courage to come out despite the financial ramifications of dropping out of the draft, Michael Sam has already passed some of the biggest tests of his life and career. Unfortunately, I think it’s pretty clear by the quotes above that the NFL has failed its test.

And in that, it has failed Michael Sam.

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