I don’t listen to that much radio and when I do it is generally talk radio. Every night this week, as I drove into work, my radio station was tuned into the local ESPN radio affiliate at a time when The Paul Finebaum Show airs. For those of you who don’t know, Finebaum hosts a call-in show dedicated to college football, Southeastern Conference football in particular, and college football in the State of Alabama especially.
The show is dominated by callers who uniformly identify themselves as either Auburn Tiger or Alabama Crimson Tide fan(atics) and the listener is treated to insights into the hatred the respective fan bases have for the others’ team. Not so last week. Every caller wanted to talk about Michael Sam, a former player for the University of Missouri’s football team.
Sam was a very good, if not great, college football player having garnered defensive player of the year accolades in the SEC and being named an All-American by certain media outlets. Sam is also homosexual. He “came out” before the NFL Combine, a weeklong event where personnel experts from the respective NFL teams congregate to assess potential draft picks.
Sam had informed his Missouri teammates of his sexual orientation before the 2013 season which was an unexpectedly fantastic one for the Tigers of Missouri.
“I am an openly proud gay man,” Sam said unapologetically. “I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me,” he went on. “I want to own my own truth…No one else should tell my story but me.”
A cynic might say that Sam had to “out himself” before the media did it for him because that would really have hurt his draft stock.
Sam, an absolute stud at Missouri, had been projected by NFL draft gurus as a 3rd to 5th round pick in the upcoming draft. Conversation on the Finebaum show, what I heard anyway, was unanimously critical of Sam and his “choice” to lead a “gay lifestyle.” The vast majority of callers opined that NFL executives should refuse to spend a draft pick on Sam due to that lifestyle.
There has never been an openly gay player in any of the major American professional sports: football, baseball or basketball. Former players in each have admitted their homosexuality after their playing days were over.
Sam, and his draft status, have been the subject of much commentary from opinion writers across the nation, and not just from sports writers. Some have equated Michael Sam to Jackie Robinson “breaking the color barrier” as the first African-American to play major league baseball. The analogy is misplaced.
In 1947 Branch Rickey was the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who engineered Robinson’s entry into the big leagues due, in large part, to his ability to help the franchise win. In fact, two other Negro League players were signed by the Dodgers at the same time. Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe were added to the big league roster in 1948 and 1949 respectively.
The Dodgers enjoyed an unprecedented decade of success which was keyed by the three former Negro Leaguers. Robinson and Campanella were later inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame and Newcombe got close.
There were hundreds of African-Americans playing in the Negro Leagues who had the ability to play in the majors. Very soon, every big league team began adding black players in order to remain competitive.
Michael Sam’s situation is different. The NFL league office publicly commended Sam for his courage, but it is up to one of the teams to draft him. SI.com quoted eight, anonymous, NFL executives who unanimously opined that Sam’s homosexuality would adversely affect his draft position.
Sam’s mere presence would “chemically imbalance” an NFL locker room because football is “still a man’s-man game,” is typical of those quoted.
I don’t think it is fair at all that Michael Sam might be denied an opportunity to succeed in the NFL. Personally, I am pulling for Sam because I admire his honesty.
There will be intense media scrutiny, beginning in the 3rd round, at the NFL draft when each successive selection is made and Michael Sam’s name is not called. Executives are going to be questioned why they passed up Sam, especially if the team in question is in need of a pass-rushing defensive end, the position Sam plays. The real media frenzy will ensue at the training camp of whatever team ends up signing Michael Sam.
The NFL execs will spout off the same old platitudes in response to questioning. “He is not a good fit for our defensive scheme;” “We had a more pressing position of need to fill with that draft pick;” or “We think he’s a good player but we rated our guy higher.”
My initial reaction to the Michael Sam story was one of sympathy for Sam and scorn for those backward Alabamians (on the Finebaum show) who cast judgment on Sam for his “sinful ways” and mock him for his unmanliness. It just doesn’t seem fair that Sam would be denied the same opportunity to succeed at football’s highest level for something that has no bearing on how strong or fast he is or his ability to tackle.
Then I surprised myself. I like to think that I am highly evolved and enlightened. I pride myself on my tolerance of others. What Michael Sam does in his private life is absolutely no concern of mine, and I would fight for his right to do as he pleases without fear of discrimination when his actions have no adverse impact on anyone.
But, I have absolutely no issue with any NFL team that passes Michael Sam up in the draft because of his declared sexual orientation.
Football coaches are the most obsessive people on the planet. They try to control every little detail of the operation. They are control freaks who go to great lengths to avoid the smallest of distractions because the difference between winning and losing football games is so razor thin. They are judged on one thing, wins versus losses.
I am only a casual fan of the New Orleans Saints, but I don’t want Coach Sean Payton and General Manager Mickey Loomis to draft Michael Sam if it will cause any distraction or dissension in the Saints locker room. Why? Because it will hurt the Saints’ chances to win football games. Recall the Saints’ Bountygate season of 2012 when they started out 0-4.
My passion is for LSU football, and I looked at the Michael Sam controversy through a purple and gold lens. I don’t want my beloved Fightin’ Tigers used as a laboratory for social experimentation because it would detract from success on the field. Coach Les Miles weighed in on the Michael Sam controversy.
“I think our team would accommodate that guy who’s a really good football player,” he said. “I think that those preferences are sincerely the decision of the player, and I think that we’re playing the best player, the toughest guy, the most capable, fastest.”
Miles statement makes my point. For the team to “accommodate” a single player detracts from the team’s ability to win games. It runs counter to the very idea of “team.” The team should not sacrifice for the good of a single player, but each player must sacrifice for the good of the team.
And I know how unfair that is to Michael Sam. And maybe NFL players are more enlightened and progressive than I think they are. But, a large percentage of NFL players are in their early twenties and are not exactly deep thinkers.
Prior to Super Bowl XLVII San Francisco 49er cornerback Chris Culliver was asked about a former NFL player who had recently “come out.”
“No, we don’t want no gay people on the team, they gotta’ get up out of here…” he responded.
There are a lot more Chris Cullivers in the league than there are Michael Sams. Think about the fiasco that ensued on the Miami Dolphins last year when offensive lineman, Richie Incognito, was suspended for hazing teammate, Johnathan Martin. Incognito employed racial slurs and tormented Martin mercilessly. Martin took a leave of absence to deal with the trauma.
Who have the rest of the Dolphins rallied around? Not Martin, who is seen as a snitch, but Incognito.
“The locker room is racist, homophobic and sexist,” said NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. “And I miss it.”
Here’s hoping that Michael Sam is drafted by an NFL team and he goes on to a very successful football career. Just not with my team.