Michael Sam, the SEC’s defensive player of the year, has revealed to the New York Times that he’s gay. The NFL, through spokesperson Greg Aiello, has offered its immediate Tweeted support, saying, “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage … We look forward to welcoming and supporting (Sam) in 2014.”
The big news — the glad tidings, to this way of thinking — is that an American football player has stepped forward in the way Jason Collins, an American basketball player, did last year. But what’s sobering is that, in the immediate aftermath of Sam’s declaration, SI.com ran a story by Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans indicating that Sam might well have endangered an NFL career that hasn’t begun.
From a purely football perspective, his decision to come out prior to May’s NFL draft will make his path to the league daunting, eight NFL executives and coaches told SI.com. In blunt terms, they project a significant drop in Sam’s draft stock, a publicity circus and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player.
For all the positive vibes that greeted Collins’ announcement — this correspondent called him “a hero” — it’s nonetheless true that Collins hasn’t played in the NBA this season. Maybe that could be explained away by his age (35) and that he was a career journeyman. But Sam was voted the top defender in the nation’s best football conference. If he gets drafted markedly lower than previous projections, or if he’s not drafted at all, what will that say about the NFL?
According to Thamel/Evans, Sam is projected as a third- to seventh-round draftee. (CBS Sports’ NFLDraftScout rates him the 90th-best player available, which would make him considerably better than a seventh-rounder.) He played defensive end at Missouri but isn’t really big enough to be one in the NFL, so there’s apt to be a position change involved. But, as one NFL scout told SI.com:
I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down. There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote “break that barrier?”
And this is the part that gay people, from actors to athletes to common everyday folks, have always had to ask: “Will me saying I’m gay matter to those who might be interested in hiring me?” In a perfect world, the answer would be no. Our world, alas, remains less than perfect.