Michael Sam and Football's Gay Barrier
Michael Sam's decision to come out as gay before the NFL draft has led to inevitable talk about "distractions" and locker room dynamics. The outpouring of support for the brave honesty from the University of Missouri defensive end has been encouraging, but will be for naught if he doesn't make it onto a National Football League squad.
After the announcement, Twitter was abuzz with heartfelt congratulations on Sam's public breakthrough. The conversation was different among anonymous league insiders who think the move will significantly hinder his prospects of being drafted. Various officials told Sports Illustrated some version of "Football isn't ready for a gay player," an overly polite way of saying that teammates wouldn't accept him in the locker room and that teams wished to avoid the publicity that's sure to follow. But if off-field attention were really enough for an organization to lose interest in a talented player, a phrase as commonly heard might as well be, "Football isn't ready for a Gronk player."
It seems that, at least initially, these predictions are holding true: As Bleacher Report's Curt Popejoy noted on Twitter, Sam's spot on CBS's draft ranking board dropped 70 places overnight. The All-America defensive end who was the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year this season had been projected as a midround pick -- CBS had him 90th last night -- and is, for the moment, slipping to later rounds. After falling all the way to 160th this morning, Sam has somewhat bounced back, sitting at 110th this afternoon.
That initial dip lends credence to those who think Sam chose poor timing to come out and should have waited until after the draft -- essentially a couched way of saying he shouldn't have come out at all. If he had waited, those same detractors would be condemning him for misrepresenting himself to teams without knowing the media frenzy that would follow. We'd then be left to wonder about the same issues about football's readiness to deal with out players. This way, at least, we'll have a definitive answer, and possibly a road map for future players. One scout told Sports Illustrated that nobody wanted "to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier,'" but a smart owner won't be afraid of making history with a player he feels is worth it.
As we saw with Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson and baseball's integration, management might be reluctant to progress, but eventually somebody will stop spitting in its face to open up a new pool of talent. Sam doesn't need to be a Hall of Famer; he just needs to attract the eye of a team in need of a solid tackler and to work on translating his game from college to the pros. In the past decades, the conversation around homosexual athletes has shifted from whether gays can play sports in the first place to the slightly more palatable question of whether gays can be accepted in sports. Sam and his predecessors have already addressed the former -- he just needs management to give him a chance to prove that the latter is no longer an issue.
As for the old "clubhouse distraction" straw man, to paraphrase Donte Stallworth, if an NFL owner thinks his team can't handle media attention, he's in entirely the wrong business.
(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)
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