One year ago, Michael Sam was supposed to change the world. Actually, that’s not a fair statement. Sam did, in fact, change the world. Or at least send notice that our world was changing.
One year ago Sunday, the St. Louis Rams selected Sam late in the seventh round of the NFL draft, the first time an openly gay football player had been drafted. Sam would try to become the first openly gay NFL player to make an active roster, the first openly gay player to participate in a regular-season NFL game, the first openly gay player to make an NFL tackle and record an NFL sack. Sam was supposed to make the NFL—and the entire world—realize that employing an openly gay player wouldn’t make the institution fall apart.
But none of that has happened. Despite finishing with three sacks in the 2014 NFL preseason, tied for the fourth-most of anybody in the league, Sam didn’t make the Rams’ active roster. He didn’t even make the 10-man practice squad, members of which spend all week preparing the active players for the upcoming game but don’t actually get to dress in uniform on the sidelines. The Dallas Cowboys picked him up and added him to their practice squad. Then, he was cut again.
One year after the draft, Sam doesn’t have a job in the NFL. And there’s not much hope that he’ll actually land one. One year later, the world remains the same as before.
“A year ago, there were no gay players in the NFL. And there isn’t today,” Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports.com, told the Daily Dot. “The amount that NFL teams have done to mitigate homophobia in the league is minimal. The league itself has done virtually nothing to improve the situation. The NFL media has done a pretty good job covering these issues, but the fact that so few people are talking about why he’s not in the NFL is discouraging. It’s hard to say the situation has gotten better.”
I was there in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall when Sam’s name was read with the No. 249 overall pick, and I felt the electricity and the excitement inside the building reach a crescendo. Not many fans remained to watch the closing moments of the draft, but those who were in the building gave a long ovation for the Rams’ selection. Then, I watched the aftermath unfold on the Internet when the video of his selection, the tears Sam cried, the kiss he planted on his boyfriend, and the joy he created among millions went viral.
After that, the nationwide attention—the good, the bad, and the controversial—stalked Sam like a quarterback feeling the pass rush. One reporter asked his Rams teammates about Sam’s shower protocol. When it was revealed that Oprah Winfrey and Sam were collaborating on a documentary, there was enough blowback to ensure that the project was postponed. And when the lights became brightest, one of his former University of Missouri teammates said that Sam had changed and that he’d become more interested in celebrity and fame.
But the man who had been named the Southeastern Conference’s defensive player of the year in 2013 performed admirably in the preseason. He drew praise from Super Bowl-winning coach Tony Dungy—who had previously said he wouldn’t have drafted Sam because of the potential distraction he would cause—and Sam provided hope that he could make the roster even though the Rams already had plenty of depth at his position.
He certainly looked explosive on this play.
But the Rams cut him and then the Cowboys did the same, probably because was considered to be a tweener—too slow to play as a linebacker and too small to play as a defensive end—leaving him as a man without a position.
But as Zeigler wrote in the aftermath of Sam’s release, “Of the 73 [defensive players of the year] in the big conferences since 2000, 95 percent were [drafted] earlier than Michael Sam; all but two since 2000 (97 percent)—and 100 percent in the last eight years—made an active roster his rookie season… all except for Sam.”
To Zeigler, there’s no question why Sam is such an anomaly.
“The NFL as a collective has sent a very clear message that if you’re gay, you’re going to be held to a higher standard,” Zeigler said. “If he hadn’t come out, he would have been drafted before the 249th pick and he would be on a team.”
Others disagree. I surveyed three football reporters/draft observers on what they thought about Sam’s physical attributes and whether his sexual orientation played any role in his joblessness.
“I think it had zero to do with him coming out [of the closet],” wrote one analyst to the Daily Dot. “He’s a tweener who can’t play special teams. Doesn’t have any traits that separate him.”
Wrote another: “It’s tough to quantify. If you take away his entire sexuality aspect, he was always a marginal prospect who was outperformed in camp … People got excited [about his preseason] sacks, but they were either unblocked or clean-up.”
Wrote still another on if Sam hadn’t come out as gay: “I think he would have been drafted, probably somewhere on Day 3. Beyond that, I’m not sure. He was not a top-10 prospect or anything.”
Even Sam later questioned the idea of revealing his sexuality.
“If I had it my way, I never would have done it the way I did, never would have told it the way I did,” Sam told GQ in December. “…I would have done the same thing I did at Mizzou. Which was to tell my team and my coaches and leave it at that.”
Still, social media seemingly has helped Sam, whose publicists didn’t respond to an interview request from the Daily Dot. He’s collected more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, and he’s parlayed his cache as a well-known football player into a stint on Dancing With the Stars and frequent appearances on the TMZ website.
But we’re no closer to a gay NFL player revealing himself. They’ve seen what’s happened to Sam, and they’ve chosen to remain silent.
“Gay professional athletes in the [major professional] sports, they’re cowards,” Zeigler said. “They’re selfish cowards. They’re focused on the next paycheck, and they’re focused on the pitfalls of coming out… There’s a guy I know who’s a marginal [NFL] player. It’s tough to tell him that he should come out publicly after what happened to Michael Sam. He struggles to make rosters, and it’s hard to label him uncourageous. It’s the guys who are making tons of money who are secure on their teams. Those are the guys who I would call cowards. Given the incredible amount of good they could do—from the 13-year-old to the elderly who are LGBT—for them to stay in the [closet] is disgusting.”
Meanwhile, Sam hasn’t given up his pursuit. He participated in the first-ever NFL veteran’s combine in March—though he didn’t get good reviews for his performance—and his Twitter handle optimistically remains @MichaelSamNFL. Zeigler can’t understand why Sam isn’t on a roster, especially when NFL teams supersize them to 90 spots in the preseason. To Zeigler, the idea that Sam isn’t one of the best 3,000 players is insane.
But if Sam never plays a down in the NFL, he did all he could. He stayed true to himself, and he inspired. He was not a coward, and Zeigler counts him as an inspiration for the influx of gay high school and college athletes who have revealed themselves in the past year.
One year ago, Sam did change the world. He just didn’t change the NFL.
Screengrab via Boxing/YouTube