Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s biggest challenge as he prepares to enter the NFL will be gaining locker-room acceptance as the league’s first openly gay player.
But the initial discrimination Sam will face will come on May 9-10, the second and third days of the NFL Draft, when a tie might go to the straight guy.
Former Washington Redskins executive vice president of football operations Vinny Cerrato explained the scenario that will take place in war rooms across the country Sunday night on ESPN Radio. Cerrato said if another prospect has the same grade as Sam when his name comes up, some teams would choose the other player because they don’t want to deal with the media deluge that will accompany selecting Sam.
Why shouldn’t courage be the tiebreaker?
Sam knows there will be catcalls from fans, derogatory comments from opponents and perhaps signs in the stands, although the league will probably mandate their removal. Sam realizes he will not only have to win over homophobic teammates, but perhaps even some coaches. He understands not all will be as accepting as his fellow Missouri Tigers, whom he told of his sexual orientation in August and protected his secret all season. Sam is well aware that 12-year veteran NBA player Jason Collins has gone unemployed since coming out in Sports Illustrated after last season. Collins said on Twitter Sunday he’d met with Sam in Los Angeles for the past two days.
Yet Sam elected to take the open road. He should be applauded for it.
In May, NFL executives can do that. They can refuse to let Sam slide past where he should be selected. Mike Mayock of the NFL Network told the Philadelphia Daily News Monday he expects Sam to be picked from the third to fifth rounds. But he could be deemed a situational pass rusher and special teams player and go undrafted in the seven rounds.
On the football side, teams must decide whether Sam is just hitting his stride or whether he’s overrated. In 2013 he produced 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for losses, both highs in the Southeastern Conference, after coming out at Missouri, presumably a burden lifted. Those totals surpassed his 9.5 sacks and 17 tackles for losses in his previous three years.
But this won’t be all about the football side. Sam already has many supporters on Twitter, including former NFL players Deion Sanders and Jerome Bettis and first lady Michelle Obama.
But they are not the ones whose team will be mobbed by television networks and national writers and broadcasters and representatives from LGBT publications and websites if they draft Sam. They are not the ones who must prepare for the season amid distractions that will reach a tabloid-like frenzy.
We all know how the NFL hates distractions.
A preview of what’s in store might come next week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. If he decides to speak, Sam could take the podium (probably on Feb. 22 or 23) for a news conference that might surpass the mob scene last year for Manti Te’o. Few in the media headquarters at Lucas Oil Stadium would miss the historical (and hopefully not cartoonish) moment. Te’o’s tale of a fake dead girlfriend Internet scam was by far the largest combine news conference ever, topping those of Cam Newton and Maurice Clarett.
Even if Sam handles the questions with the same bravery and honesty he showed on ESPN’s Outside the Lines Sunday, some league execs will see the clips and photos and shudder. They will cover their bias against gays or their unwillingness to deal with the attention Sam would bring by writing him off as a 6-foot-1½, 260-pound tweener.
There has already been speculation over which NFL teams have the type of owner, general manager, veteran coach and locker room that would accept Sam. Owner Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots told the Boston Herald’s Steve Buckley his team has the right culture and he would support picking Sam if he could help the Patriots.
“If a player were gay and came into this locker room, it would be the most supportive system,” Kraft told Buckley. “He’d gain strength by being in here. And it wouldn’t be divisive and he’d make friends for life and they could help him win.”
Kraft found it interesting that the Tigers went 12-2, lost to Auburn in the SEC Championship game and came back to beat Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl and Sam was selected co-defensive player of the year by the Southeastern Conference.
“That was after full disclosure. And that makes me happy,” Kraft told the Herald.
Kraft admitted he might be naïve in believing the world is more accepting in 2014. That was the case at Missouri. The NFL will show whether its true colors include a rainbow on May 9-10, when one of its owners has a chance to prove as courageous as Sam.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.