It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since Michael Sam suited up as the first openly gay player in the NFL. The story for him since then has been anything but glorious. The same can also be said for the NFL. I thought two years was enough time to take a look back as well as a look ahead for both the league and the player that caused so much conversation.
I think it’s most fitting to begin with Michael Sam. Just prior to the NFL Draft, the former University of Missouri standout announced to the world that he was gay. From there, things pretty much went south professionally for the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. A poor combine followed by a slightly better Pro Day took him to Draft Day. May 10, 2014 was a day I will never forget. Like any proud gay man, it was amazing to see Michael Sam drafted into the NFL -- even if it was on the final day and closing moments of the draft. Seventh round and pick number 249 overall by the St. Louis Rams. Sam had done it. He had become the first openly gay NFL player. I remember wiping the tears from my face. I thought to myself and aloud on my radio show, “This is going to change everything.” In reality, it seems to have changed little. In fact, you might even be able to argue that things have gone backwards in terms of when we will see another openly gay player in the NFL.
In the post-mortem as it pertains to Sam, I can cast plenty of blame on both the player and those around him. From noted PR maestro Howard Bragman to Sam’s agents and to Sam himself, there needs to be culpability. How they handled this “coming-out” was anything but well done. In saying this, I do need to disclose that I requested multiple interviews with Michael Sam while hosting a nationally syndicated, sports-radio talk show for NBC Sports. Each time, the request was denied. Why he and his people refused to talk to an openly gay sports-radio host still mystifies me to this day, but I never felt bitter about it -- the Sam camp had their reasons.
Let this be said, however, that Howard Bragman needs to stay out of sports PR and stay in entertainment, and Sam should have quickly fired the agents he initially hired to rep him. Mind you, this is the same Howard Bragman who once told me it was a good idea for Jason Collins to come out during the NBA Playoffs as opposed to waiting until the league’s premiere showcase had concluded. Upstaging the league you want to support you is never a bright idea. Clueless doesn’t even begin to describe Bragman’s support of such an approach. Michael Sam got bad advice from start to finish. And make no mistake about it: The end has come for Sam as it pertains to his NFL prospects, but he has to take some of the blame himself. He was an adult and made the choices that in part brought him to the point where he’s become a footnote in history rather than a true trailblazer. The definition of a trailblazer is one who makes, does or discovers something new and makes it acceptable or popular. Does being openly gay in the NFL today seem any more acceptable or popular than it did two years ago? You know the answer to that question.
I heard so often that Michael Sam was going to be a Jackie Robinson-esque figure for the LGBTQ community. Answer me this: Did Jackie Robinson call every newspaper over to his home the day Branch Rickey extended an invitation for him to come play for the Brooklyn Dodgers? Did he need a cake? Did he have to feed the cake to Rachel Robinson? Nope. He just went out and played the game. Amongst all the slings and arrows, the focus for Robinson was always on silencing his critics by proving he belonged. He did that on the field. Sam spent WAAAAAAAY too much time doing that off the field. Magazine covers, planned documentaries for OWN (which curried him little favor around the Rams) and “Dancing With the Stars” were all poor decisions. And while his agents and PR staff may have presented these as opportunities, he still made the decision to go through with them. Sam seemingly became engulfed in the celebrity of being Michael Sam before such celebrity was warranted. The celebrity would have ALWAYS been there if he succeeded on the field. But celebrity without the production to match was merely a distraction for the Rams. At the same time, it can certainly be argued that the Rams never really intended on giving Sam a regular season roster spot anyway. But I’ll get to that shortly. Sam would be released on the final day of cut-downs for the Rams. Shortly after being let go by the Rams, Sam latched on with the Dallas Cowboys practice squad. Late in the season, the Cowboys also let him go. The All-American defensive end would never play in an NFL regular season game.
Many will point to Sam’s performance during the preseason of 2014 with the Rams as proof he got a “raw deal.” He piled up sacks in those games when the reserves were on the field. He performed at a pretty high level against a lower level of competition. That’s stating it fairly in my opinion. A Rams team loaded with defensive talent opted for a non-drafted free agent over Sam. It’s important to remember that opinions on what qualifies as talented and meaningful in sports can be highly subjective. Ultimately, the only thing Sam could control was how he conducted himself. He needed to make himself as appetizing as possible to another potential NFL team in need of defensive help. It’s easy for me to argue that the decisions he made off the field ran counter to somebody wanting another opportunity on it. After being let go by the Cowboys, Sam opted for a short-lived run as a contestant on “Dancing With the Stars,” followed by an equally short run in the CFL with the Montreal Alouettes. The tenure in Montreal was marred with off-the-field issues for Sam in his personal life that eventually had him quitting the team.
Now with all of that being said, the other side of the coin isn’t too shiny as it relates to the NFL. Two years after the release of Michael Sam from the Rams, there seems to be solid reporting from St. Louis-based NFL writer Howard Balzer that the Rams may have drafted Sam as a favor to the NFL in exchange for being kept off the docu-series “Hard Knocks” on HBO in that same season. It’s a quid pro quo the Rams and the league have since denied. But given the shenanigans around the NFL over the last decade when it comes to issues such as concussions, deflated footballs and domestic violence, would it come as a surprise to anybody if we learned the drafting of Michael Sam was heavily coerced? He led the 2014 NFL preseason in sacks and was released at the end of the preseason. He never got off the practice squad after that. I can understand the skepticism with which his career trajectory could be viewed. Add into the equation the number of off-hand negative comments from those afraid to go on the record regarding things such as being naked in the locker room with Sam or showering with an openly gay player, and one can certainly see that the environment for an openly gay NFL player is anything but comfortable. Often, an individual’s perception is their reality. That doesn’t really apply in this case. On the surface, the NFL will say the right things about inclusivity, but the world inside the walls of a locker room and front office are a completely different matter altogether.
In the final analysis, I can find blame with both the NFL AND Michael Sam. How much blame goes to one or the other is something you can decide based on the information I have provided. Coming out wasn’t the mistake Michael Sam made. The mistake was in not adequately prioritizing his professional life alongside his private life. As I said before, some of that falls on his representation, but it also falls on Sam himself. I firmly believe the off-the-field decisions made by Sam before he ever played a preseason down, together with the decisions made after his first season as a professional, left teams wondering as to where his focus and priorities were. Did he want to be Michael Sam: The football player who happens to be gay? Or did he want to be Michael Sam: The openly gay football player? I feel he and his team around him chose the latter. Fairly or unfairly, the margin for error as the first openly gay NFL player was much smaller for Michael Sam then it would have been for a straight player drafted in the same spot. But Sam needed to be better prepared for that going in.
The NFL is also to blame. Assuming the story I referenced earlier from Howard Balzer is true, the NFL did no favors to Sam by force-feeding him to the Rams in some back-alley deal that would keep them off “Hard Knocks.” Other teams around the league probably caught wind of this. It couldn’t have helped in shaping the perception of the league’s first openly gay player. I’ve watched as NFL teams have continued to question players regarding their sexual orientation during pre-draft interviews. Have teams been punished? Sure. But it continues to happen. That tells me the punishments aren’t severe enough. I saw New York Giants receiver Odell Beckham Jr. taunted by Josh Norman and Cortland Finnegan among other players of the Carolina Panthers. The taunts were of a nature aimed at Beckham’s sexual orientation. The league’s response to it? Silence. A league that has microphones and cameras all over the field surely knew what was said. It did nothing. The way the league handles the issue of sexual orientation is akin to saying “But I have friends that are gay.”
I’m of the belief that the next openly gay NFL player will have to be a superstar on the collegiate level with other-worldly talent or a player already established as a consistent pro-bowler that is invaluable to his team. This is what it will take for a gay man to have a legitimate shot to change perceptions and become the game’s first LGBTQ trailblazer. People love to gamble on the NFL. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t gamble on that sort of player coming along anytime soon.