Hours after Michael Sam came out openly as gay, a CBS Sports draft board had him dropping from its 90th-ranked player to its 160th ranked. An NFL player personnel assistance told Sports Illustrated that having a gay player in the locker room would "chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room." Of the 12 NFL scouts, coaches or general managers Sports Illustrated talked too, all said Sam's stock would drop, with some saying he would not be drafted at all.
Give us a break. NFL teams have happily signed accused rapists, drug abusers, spousal abusers, drunks, thugs and thieves on their teams, as long as they could play. But a guy who simply states he likes to sleep with other men will suddenly cause turmoil in the locker room? So much for the league being filled with tough guys who can "man up" and handle anything. Anything, apparently, except having an openly gay teammate.
If this attitude is the prevailing one among the 32 NFL teams, then the league really is living in the 1950s. We think that's not true, and think some team will draft Michael Sam because he fits a need they are trying to fill. The next three months will tell a lot of whether the league's push for acceptance on sexual orientation is meaningful or as useless as the Broncos game plan against the Seahawks. Michael Sam stands as the perfect litmus test of whether discredited stereotypes still hold sway in the league. It's put up or shut up time in the NFL.
"Chemically imbalance an NFL locker room"? Really? Even in Indianapolis, where 12 Colts have gone on record in support of a gay teammate, including the most important Colt of all, quarterback Andrew Luck. If Sam could help a defense that gave up 47 points in two playoff games, that a "chemical imbalance" they'll take.
How about Seattle, where in the last week quarterback Russell Wilson and Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith have stated their support for a gay teammate? Or Washington, where quarterback Robert Griffin III has said he had a gay teammate in high school and it wasn't a problem? Or San Francisco, where everyone from the owner to the coach and general manager to star players like Vernon Davis are cool with a gay player? Or in Philadelphia, with a progressive owner and coach and a player, Connor Barwin, who has a gay brother, and said this in 2012:
"I think right now it would probably be hard for a guy to come out in our locker room just because of the awkwardness. But I think they would be surprised at how welcoming people would be. I think at the end of the day guys care about how you play football, because we're all so competitive about winning that if there is a guy who comes out as gay in our locker room and he's a good football player, people aren't going to care about that. I think that's the honest truth. I think guys care about what kind of person they are, what kind of teammate they are and how good they are at helping us win."
The next three months will tell us a lot. Who will win out? A bunch of concern trolling by out-of-touch front-office fossils who fear anything that can be labeled a distraction and look for any reason to downgrade a player? Or people who know it's 2014 and times have changed and that their locker rooms have also?
Wilson, Luck and Griffin are the young faces of the new NFL, raised in an environment where more and more gay people are out. Most players have had either gay family, friends or classmates and they have seen gay people portrayed positively in the media. We think leaders like these three quarterbacks will set an example in embracing a gay teammate. All they care about is whether a guy can ball.
Sam stands about 6-3 and weighs 260 pounds. He's fast and he likes to hit quarterbacks. Every team has someone who likes to hit quarterbacks. And yet, based on reactions so far from a dozen team officials – all afraid to use their names -- an entire locker room filled with macho, strong, confident, testosterone-loaded men will suddenly dissolve into a heap of cowards, terrified that a gay man is among them. Guess what? A gay man has already been among virtually every player at some point in his career. Sam's just the first to announce it publicly.
We're being led to believe that the locker rooms of the Seattle Seahawks and the Detroit Lions and the New England Patriots and 29 other teams are more homophobic than the University of Missouri and Middle Tennessee State. That's where Michael Sam and Alan Gendreau were out to their teams. They showered, they practiced -- hell, they even lived in the same room -- with their teammates. Everything was cool. The guys who said anti-gay stuff embraced them and apologized when something slipped. NFL players are paid to be professionals and will act like it.
We put the onus squarely on team management and not players. There will certainly be players uncomfortable with an openly gay teammate, but people are always uncomfortable with change. At one time not so long ago, a black college football player was unknown at many schools in the Deep South. But times change. The same will happen with Sam, especially if a strong coach and front office lay down the law should trouble arise; leaders lead.
Yet, these front-office cowards expect us to believe that professional, educated millionaires are somehow less able to cope with a gay teammate than the kids thrown together in Missouri and Tennessee?
What we have here is a classic case of projection. These men have a problem with gay athletes, so they project their issue on the players. "The locker room could be turned upside down!" It only could be if there's poor leadership, of which these men are a part.
They throw out ruses like "oh, it's too much of a distraction" and "what could we ever do about the media circus that will surely follow?" Every NFL's job all season is to reach the biggest media circus of all! We just experienced the Super Bowl not two weeks ago. "Circus" does not begin to describe it. This is what every team strives for. And some front office suits are worried about a few extra cameras and some questions at a couple practices? The argument is insulting to our intelligence.
If a general manager is truly worried about not being able to lead his team through some extra attention, he should resign immediately. He is not capable of doing the job. The general managers and head coaches of championship teams -- like the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, New York Giants and Baltimore Ravens -- could deal with it just fine. If you're an NFL general manager and a gay player is a problem for your team, he's not the team's problem: You are.
Deadspin's Drew Magary, often the voice of gloom and pessimism, thinks Sam won't be drafted and says this: "Many NFL GMs regard a gay player as some kind of superhuman perpetual distraction machine, as if Sam will run out onto the field every week with a miniature Ferris Wheel dangling from his cock."
One general manager Peter King of MMQB spoke to even took a swipe at Sam's talent, saying he didn't think any of the 32 teams would draft him:
"We don't think he's a very good player. The reality is he's an overrated football player in our estimation."
Not a very good player. So he leads the SEC in sacks and tackles for losses, was the first unanimous first-team All-American in Missouri history, and was the AP defensive player of the year in the SEC, and he's overrated and not one of the 250+ best NFL prospects in the draft? Again, it's a situation of projection: They don't want him on their team, so they belittle him in hopes of making their own decision look good.
There is one alternative theory to all of this. NHL executive Patrick Burke, founder of the You Can Play Project, mentioned it to us last week. It is possible some GMs smell blood in the water, so they'll pile on now -- hoping they can steal him late in the draft. If the chorus of voices in the NFL create an environment in which other teams believe they can get him later in the draft, he starts to slip. So now the GM who wants him -- and who's bad-mouthing him in the press -- can maybe get a guy they think is a 3rd-round talent in the 4th or even 5th round. It makes a hell of a lot more sense than worrying about a fictitious "media circus" destroying the team.
The NFL has talked the talk, now it has to walk the walk.
You can contact Jim Buzinski at firstname.lastname@example.org and Cyd Zeigler at email@example.com.