At 25-years-old, barely a year after being named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Michael Sam is jobless. With the NFL regular season over and the Super Bowl on the horizon, the former seventh-round pick remains a free agent with zero regular season NFL snaps to his name. He’s as much a professional football player as a guy who was once mentioned on 2DopeBoyz is a rapper. Both are unsigned hype at this point, but for Sam, a co-sign from Kanye West or King Goodell won't do him much good.
Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player, was kicked to the league’s curb, unceremoniously cut by both the St. Louis Rams and the Dallas Cowboys less than halfway through the regular season. Because of the NFL’s collective insolence—from fans, media, players, coaches, and executives alike—a season’s worth of potential SportsCenter highlights and social progression was lost. There isn’t a single openly gay active professional athlete in any of North America’s four “major” leagues, and given the tepid reception the NFL gave Sam before cutting him, we’re still far from a warm and fuzzy grand outing.
Sam’s NFL career is essentially a cadaver. But where did it all go astray?
Facing another offseason of talk about what he could do on the field instead of what he’s actually doing, Sam’s NFL career is essentially a cadaver. But where did it all go astray? How and why has Sam been snubbed? His sexuality is the simplest answer, but how we received and reacted to Sam’s openness tells a disappointing story of discomfort and intolerance.
Sam’s announcement before the 2014 NFL Draft was, in hindsight, poor timing. Coupled with disappointing Senior Bowl and Combine performances, Sam coming out before being drafted undoubtedly hurt his stock. Deciding to come out to the world first, and not the team that drafted him, wasn’t his original plan. He wanted to come out to his first NFL team in May, but his secret, previously only known to his teammates at the University of Missouri, got out. He told People, "Everyone who did an interview with me said, 'OK, we know you're gay, can we break the story?' So I said OK, and I called my agent. The rest is history."
In a fortnight, Sam went from being graded as a mid-round pick to a 50-50 shot at even being drafted at all. The first viral video of Sam wasn't a clip of him running the 40, but one that pointed out his crotch bulge at the Combine. NFL employees, speaking anonymously to Sports Illustrated right after Sam’s announcement, were inappropriately candid about how his sexuality would impact his draft stock. Their honesty through the veil of anonymity should’ve been spit back in their faces as shameful cowardice. One NFL player personnel assistant said that Sam would “chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room”—coded homophobia at its finest. A veteran scout assured S.I. that he’d fall in the draft: “It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'”
The Rams ended up breaking that barrier in the last round of the draft. Cameras showed Sam kissing his boyfriend (now fiancé) after getting the call. It was a moment of pure passion and love polymerizing with a man’s hard-earned dream come true. It was silly and playful and as joyful as one could be. Many celebrated the moment. But for some NFL players, The Kiss was icky.
Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can't believe ESPN even allowed that to happen.— Derrick Ward (@derrickward32) May 10, 2014
More NFL players, somehow speaking with their heads in the sand, would follow with their own ignorantly hot takes on Sam. Atlanta Falcons cornerback Asante Samuel told Fox Sports Radio that, “You don't have to show it and flaunt it like that. You know what I'm saying, we have kids out here too." Seattle Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons tweeted, “I just think something's should be left at home.”
Not included in Clemons’ tweets were explanations on how one leaves their sexuality at home, or how he planned to stop being so damn straight in front of his teammates. In so many words, these quotes represent how polarized and culturally arcane the NFL is. Certain NFLers wanted to put Sam back into the closet, seemingly unaware of how visible gay pride has been for decades.
Once Sam’s outing was irritably and hastily digested, the “distraction” tag came. The thought went, that because of all the media attention surrounding Sam, his individualism would come before the state of the team. One general manager told Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report, “Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention." Freeman noted that, “In interviews with a number of team officials, I can't find one who will actually say to me, ‘He can't play.’ They all point to the media and say he's too big a distraction.”
@RossTuckerNFL blame that on espn. No one wants the distraction— Eric Wood (@EWood70) August 31, 2014
This reasoning, as Jon Stewart pointed out, is bullshit. It ignores the countless stars and scrubs who’ve caught criminal charges and were welcomed back onto rosters with fresh “second chance” air in their sails. It gives credence to homophobes like Super Bowl-winning head coach Tony Dungy, who’s said before that he wouldn’t want Sam on his team, but would totally take Ray Rice back. Not only that, but it obscures the obvious: Sam can play.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher, after cutting Sam due to depth on the defensive line, said that he was, "no distraction” and was a “good teammate."
The only real “distraction” Coach Fisher experienced involving Sam’s training camp concerned ESPN’s Josina Anderson. The Emmy-winning journalist, while awaiting news on Sam’s roster status, did a live report outside of Rams’ camp on SportsCenter about Sam’s showering habits. Citing an unnamed player who noticed that Sam was “respecting our space,” she followed the juicy lede.
The segment was a fucking mess. How Sam was “fitting in” was questioned by Anderson, which posits him not as a football player in camp competing with other football players, but as an outsider whose sexuality genuinely mattered on the field, the one place where it shouldn’t.
Sam spoke to GQ about Anderson’s report as part of the magazine's “Men of the Year” issue. His response had typical “oorah” spirit of an athlete: “Well, I hope the way I shut down that story, the locker-room story, is by making plays on the field.”
Making plays on the field. Sam did that in the preseason.
12 players had 2.5 or more sacks this preseason. 10 are on 53-man rosters. One on practice squad. And last, Michael Sam, hasn't found work.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 1, 2014
But within the five-month circus of meaningful NFL football, Sam made none. Not seeing Sam hunt down opponents with his motor has hurt his push to move the LGBT conversation forward. As much as we love to talk about what happens on the periphery of sport—athlete arrests, tipping habits, and dating lives are all covered by sports media (especially Complex Sports)—we don’t give a shit about athletes who aren’t actively on the field producing GIF and Vine-worthy highlights and jeers. The only Sam-related content were his interviews, and the sheer quantity of those saturated the sports media sphere. His drum beat flatlined. Sam’s story, especially as the Ray Rice video and Adrian Peterson photos came down the timeline, was pushed into the abyss.
Without a team and without real regular season playing time, Michael Sam, the brand championing LGBT rights within sport, was reduced to Michael Sam, that guy who kissed another dude on television who also knows a few gay active NFL players.
If Sam had played week to week, perhaps closeted NFL players would’ve been more inclined to come out. No such footage, no such inspiration. He never got the chance to lead by pure example. To tackle players who don’t know him. To challenge gay stereotypes by asserting his physical power and making killer special teams blocks. We’ll never know for sure, but that missed opportunity to keep LGBT rights at the forefront of football will hang over the sport, and for some time too: Sam has been snubbed at an historic level.
If the NFL exists as a microcosm of what’s really happening in America, as some have suggested, then a season in which wife-beaters, child-abusers, racists, and liars have all been condemned should only make the league and the country stronger going forward. When faced with images of a battered wife or bloodied kid, the viewing public, the media, and corporate sponsors won’t stand for socially irresponsible behavior from the NFL. Mistakes are to be learned from. That much is clear.
While Peterson and Rice were forced off the field for their immorality and dehumanization of others, Sam was effectively punished by all 32 NFL teams for being gay.
What’s also evident, however, is the NFL's disgusting double standard. While Peterson and Rice were forced off the field for their immorality and dehumanization of others, Sam was effectively punished by all 32 NFL teams for being gay and asking for his humanity to be accepted. He’s been declined thus far, shunned by the NFL because he’s queer in the most explicit, yet somehow socially acceptable, manner possible.
Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention.
How has the NFL, the highest-rated, most paid-attention-to thing in American sports, gotten away with that excuse?
Yet, given that LGBT rights in America is still a difficult state-by-state battle (Missouri, the state in which Sam played college football and was briefly a professional, still allows employment discrimination based on sexual orientation), Sam’s mistreatment—as blatant and ugly as it may be—is on par with how NFL-loving Americans feel about LGBT equality. Fifty-five percent of Americans might support marriage equality, and 36 states have legalized same-sex marriage, but a narrow majority is far from the nationwide consensus that’s truly needed. Most Americans over 50 years old aren’t for something as entry-level as same-sex marriage (most less than 50 are), and the majority of NFL fans are more than 50. As quickly as righteous Christian quarterbacks are celebrated, openly gay defensive ends are awkwardly shoved aside.
Looking back, America wasn’t actually ready for Michael Sam. The continuously embarrassing NFL, of all leagues, was hardly deserving of his courage. We’re still another season away from an openly gay man playing a down in the NFL. Sam is closer to Oprah than the gridiron at this point. He's been cast as a gay man with a football player’s skills and body instead of an NFL player who’s also gay. The distinction is important, unfortunate, and a measure of Sam’s mismanagement.
For all his undisputed and unused on-field talents, Sam’s real potential was as a catalyst for social justice within sport—not exactly an uncommon thing to see happen. That’s what NFL executives and coaches really wasted, but within a society that promises progression but can’t see beyond the pads, that much should’ve been expected. In a league where missed opportunities often define wins and losses, Sam stands alone. He shouldn’t have to. We failed Michael Sam; let’s not fail the next man up.