Saturday is final-cut day in the NFL, a brutal but routine step toward the regular season that carries loads of added significance this year because of one man: Michael Sam.
Sam, a 24-year-old defensive end from Texas, is poised to become the first openly gay player to make an NFL team.
He is, by all accounts, on the bubble, fighting for a dwindling number of open spots with the St. Louis Rams, who drafted him out of the University of Missouri in May. With just a few hours before the 4 p.m. ET Saturday deadline, his fate rests with Rams Coach Jeff Fisher, who seems to be mulling whether to take Sam or his main rival, undrafted defensive end/tackle Ethan Westbrooks. Both played well in the Rams’ final preseason game against the Miami Dolphins Thursday. But the process of trimming NFL rosters is a complicated business, and other factors out of Sam’s control — injuries, trades, existing contracts, salary caps — may affect his chances.
Fisher, known for giving blunt assessments of a prospect’s chances, has said he believes Sam has already proven that he can play in the NFL. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be for the Rams. If he’s cut, Sam could be picked up by another team, or be invited to play for the Rams’ practice squad.
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Sam told reporters Thursday that he was “very confident” that he’d make an NFL roster. “I know I can play in this league,” he said.
With each incremental step he makes toward his dream, Sam does so as a pioneer. Since coming out after the 2013 college season, he has become one of the year's biggest sports stories and a symbol of progress within the hidebound culture of American sports. He once asked to be seen "as Michael Sam, the football player, instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player." But if he doesn't make the cut, his personal setback could be viewed by some as bad news for all gay athletes.
Wade Davis understands Sam’s thinking better than most. He’s a former NFL journeyman cornerback who’s been cut multiple times — including twice by Fisher, when he coached the Tennessee Titans. In 2012, nine years after the end of his career, Davis came out as gay.
Davis, now an LGBT activist, has been watching and rooting for Sam with a growing sense of unease. As a former “bubble” prospect himself, Davis relates with the stress of cut day. But Davis also worries about how the national conversation — outside locker rooms, which he believes are, by and large, quite tolerant — will turn if Sam is let go.
"What Michael Sam is doing is disturbing our tightly held beliefs around who should be able to play sports,” Davis said on Friday. “If he wasn’t gay, we wouldn’t be having this separate conversation around sexual orientation. So there is this possibility that people can be like, ‘See? Sports isn’t ready for a gay player.’ If he doesn’t make the Rams roster and isn’t claimed off waivers, it could perpetrate this myth that sports isn’t a space that is accepting to LGBT athletes.”
Jim Buzinski has been covering Sam’s trials for Outsports, the website that he co-founded. He predicted that Sam would get cut and fail to get picked up by another team because of a bullheaded belief — that Sam disproved while trying out for the Rams — that a gay player would be a “distraction.”
The only apparent disturbance in Rams camp was generated by the media earlier this week, when ESPN reported on Sam’s shower habits. The network later apologized.
In the end, Buzinski said, Sam will probably end up on the Rams’ practice team.
“I think he’s already made his impact by going through a camp as an openly gay player and by all accounts fitting into the team,” Buzinski said in an interview.
If Sam makes the Rams’ roster, or is picked up by another team, it will be a truly historic moment. But Davis cautioned that the next milestone — having an openly gay man take the field in a regular-season NFL game — will remain in the distance. That’s because the 52nd or 53rd guy on a team doesn’t stand much of a chance of getting any playing time.
“So there still is this waiting for him to play in a game on Sunday,” Davis said. “That’s a delay in our full gratification.”