Jim Geraghty looks at two sides of the Michael Sam story: the media side and the football side. They’re very different stories.
Good luck, Michael Sam.
Those of us who are sports fans are going to have a fascinating couple weeks ahead, as the national political and cultural media insists upon interpreting the events of the National Football League draft through the lens of identity politics. They will attempt to shoehorn events into a made-for-TV movie storyline about Michael Sam, defensive end for the University of Missouri, and aspiring NFL player.
Our media used to writing one kind of identity politics story: a person comes out of the closet and becomes the first openly-gay person to achieve a particular goal, gets saluted for bravery, is elevated to hero status, and then spends the next few years going to black-tie awards dinners and being the subject of overwrought documentaries.
The NFL Draft comes with its own movie-ready drama. Unlike the Super Bowl or any other sports championship, the draft is a major annual event that involves every team, as
every almost every team has a first-round draft choice. (Sorry, Washington Redskins fans.) There’s a near-complete reversal of fortune, as the league’s worst team has the first and most consequential choice, making a selection that could ignite a quick turnaround back to respectability or be remembered as one of the all-time flops. Every fan of every team has a reason to tune in, to see who their team picks, hoping to have gotten a future star. The NFL draft is one of those rare high-drama sporting events with no real losers.
But there are indeed big winners. For the players, draft day is their real graduation day, where they stop practicing their craft to ensure the prosperity of a university and finally cash in on their years of effort with, in most circumstances, a multi-million dollar, multi-year contract. Guys who grew up with next to nothing bring their mothers and their whole families to New York City, where they learn where they’ll be living for the next few years, pursuing their dream of stardom. Genuine tears of joy flow. At age 20 or 21 or so, these young men have achieved their childhood dreams.
I suspect most fans’ biggest question about Michael Sam is, ‘if my team drafts him, how much better will our pass rush get?’ NFL fans care about the off-the-field behavior of their favorite team’s players to a certain degree; nobody likes rooting for a thug and a player prone to off-the-field trouble represents a higher risk of getting himself suspended or in legal trouble someday. But it’s hard to believe that NFL fans who can come to terms with a one-man population explosion at cornerback or shrug off drug busts, assault charges, DWIs, public intoxication, and all kinds of other misbehavior will stop rooting for a team with a gay defensive end.
A large chunk of the media will insist upon interpreting every triumph and setback for Michael Sam through the lens of his homosexuality and their belief that he’s a flashpoint in a battle between ‘tolerance’ and ‘intolerance.’ But the career of an NFL player can rise or fall on a thousand different factors and twists of fate. Do the coaches use him correctly? How complicated is the defensive system, and how quickly can he pick up the signals, terminology, and strategy? Is he in a system designed to showcase his natural skills, or are the coaches trying to use him in a new or different role that takes time to learn? How good are the other players on the team at his position? Does he twist an ankle or tear an ACL? Sam seems to have a good head on his shoulders, but how does he handle the pressures of being a professional athlete?
In addition to the questions about whether Sam’s collegiate talents will be enough to allow him to flourish in the NFL, and whether a given team would welcome an openly gay team-mate in the locker room, there’s also the “Tim Tebow” problem … the team that drafts Sam will be in the unrelenting focus of the media’s publicity floodlights. Just drafting Sam would only be the start of the media’s attention. Everything to do with Sam will draw TV cameras, paparazzi, and the team’s beat writers for local media outlets.
Where is he going to live? What kind of car does he drive? Where does he shop? How do his new neighbours feel about him? What kind of clothes does he wear away from the team’s facilities? Where does he go for entertainment? Who is he hanging around with?
And that’s just the start of it. Once the pre-season routine gets underway with organized team activities, mini-camps, and then training camp, the team (probably the head coach, but also the GM and the defensive co-ordinator or the linebackers coach) will have their every word analyzed for Sam-newsworthyness. If Sam does poorly in a drill or a scrimmage, it’ll be all over the media. If he isn’t in the starting rotation, it’ll be interpreted (by some) as proof that the team isn’t serious about giving him a fair chance to play.
This might be acceptable to a team if Sam’s skills were top-10 quality, but most of the reports don’t indicate that. A team will put up with a lot if the player drawing the attention is an athletic superstar, but for what seems to be (at best) a player with fair-to-adequate skills, it may deter them from drafting him at all.
Each team starts the regular season with 53 players, but they take nearly twice that number to training camp. Players who are drafted will have a better-than-average chance of being on the opening day roster, but the chances go down significantly the later a player is drafted. All first and second round picks are going to be on the roster, but not all sixth or seventh round picks will be. Sam’s skill set indicate he might have been a mid-round pick before the news broke about him coming out. Now, he might not be picked until the sixth round or he may not be picked at all. If that happens, many will decry the NFL’s homophobia, but as you can see, there’s a lot more in play than just Sam and his NFL playing potential.