College football players from around the country, who have either graduated or have announced they’ll leave college early and enter the 2014 N.F.L. draft are more than likely busting their asses tirelessly training as they prepare to put their future on the line in the upcoming N.F.L Combine and the N.F.L. draft.
One brave player has already put his N.F.L. future on the line, and it has nothing to do with his play on the football field.
Last week, former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who is 24 years old, announced that he was gay. His monumental announcement could pave the way to the league’s first publically gay N.F.L. player in history – that is, if he’s ultimately drafted come early May.
Before Sam’s announcement, this year’s pre-draft media hype draft was going to focus on the Texans, Rams, Jaguars, Browns, and Raiders, and who they would select in the first round. Jadeveon Clowney No. 1? Johnny Manziel No. 2 or 3? When does Teddy Bridgewater get selected?
All of that hype is now in the background, following Sam’s announcement. For good or bad, Sam will be the story of the 2014 N.F.L. Draft. Yes, he’s breaking barriers. It’s also too bad it’s taken this long to get to this point. It’s sad this is a huge story. We have progressed in sexual equality, but certainly not far enough. The N.F.L. has a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. According to The Times, there are 1,600 players on rosters at any time during the season, but there has been a publicly gay player…until now, possibly.
For Sam, his ability on the football field should get him drafted. As a senior, he helped Missouri to a 12-2 record and a Cotton Bowl victory, was first-team all-American and named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference. And perhaps most importantly he was voted by his teammates, according to SI.com, Missouri’s most valuable player. That, to me, is the biggest honor he received as it proves first-hand that a team can function at a high level with an openly gay man on its squad.
Before I get into this further, we should take a closer look at Sam’s senior year at Missouri. His final year while playing for the Tigers is as groundbreaking as his entrance into the N.F.L. will be.
As he explained to The New York Times last week, during a preseason football practice last year, the coaches divided the players into small groups for a team-building exercise. Within each of those groups, individual players were directed to talk about themselves, to give their teammates a glimpse of what they may not know about them. For Sam, it was time to come out.
According to the Times story, Sam began to speak, then balled up a piece of paper in his hands and said, “I’m gay.” With that, “I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads – like, finally, he came out,” Sam said.
Fourteen games and a Cotton Bowl victory later, those same teammates named Sam the team’s most valuable player. This not only says a lot about Sam and his decision to tell his teammates; it also says a lot about the University of Missouri’s football organization and its coaches. There are skeptics who believe an openly gay man or woman on any team will cause enough of a distraction to be detrimental to the team. The Missouri Tigers prove those skeptics wrong.
While it seems that Sam’s public announcement last week received much more positive attention than negative attention, there are still skeptics who believe a gay football player will not be accepted.
“I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma told the N.F.L. Network last week.
Others like former Ravens head coach Brian Billick see it differently.
“If people are talking about how he’ll fit into the locker room, but taking a mindset from 20 years ago, that could be an issue, because we’ve evolved a great deal since then,” Billick told The Times in a report highlighting the many players who have spoken out in support of Sam. “His orientation obviously wasn’t a big factor in the Mizzou locker room, so I can’t imagine it would be any more of an issue in a pro locker room of grown, seemingly mature men.”
So as we look toward the 2014 draft, the question will be what team will be groundbreaking in its own right to draft Sam for his talents. It seems most draft analysts have Sam being picked up somewhere in the third or fourth round of the draft. And a lot of teams, including the Denver Broncos, are seriously considering him for a spot on their roster.
On Monday, Broncos Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway said the Broncos organization intends to evaluate Sam the same as any other player.
“I applaud Michael Sam and wish him the very best as he continues the pursuit of his N.F.L. dream,” Elway told ESPN.com on Monday. “As we look toward the combine and draft, we will evaluate Michael just like any other draft prospect – on the basis of his ability, character and N.F.L. potential. His announcement will have no effect on how we see him as a football player.
“Having spent 16 years in an N.F.L. locker room, the bottom line is that it's about treating others with respect and earning that respect. By all indications, it appears Michael has done just that throughout his football career,” Elway added.
It goes without saying that teams that may hesitate in drafting an openly gay player can pass on him for thousands of other reasons. He didn’t fit our defensive concept. We weren’t impressed with his late-season energy. His spot has been filled. There are a thousand excuses teams can use for not selecting Sam in the upcoming draft.
What I am interested in is what team is going to be brave and bold. Like I said, it’s sad that this is a big story, but that’s where we are at. This is groundbreaking. Sam Was brave to come out. What team is going to be brave enough to select Sam in the 2014 draft?
Whoever does is going to get one hell of a good football player.