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Michael Sam being cut will give other gay pro athletes pause

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Whatever the reality, the perception is that being openly gay hurt Sam's chances in the NFL.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Now that Michael Sam has been cut from the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, here is how the landscape looks for openly gay players in the four major North American male team sports:

NFL: 0
NHL: 0
Major League Baseball: 0
NBA: 0 (Jason Collins is likely to retire).

If you stretch major sports to include Major League Soccer, you one more with Robbie Rogers of the L.A. Galaxy. There are zero in men's tennis, golf or auto racing, none in major college football and only Derrick Gordon in Division 1 men's basketball. That's a pretty meager total given all the attention to gay athletes in the last few years. I am focusing on gay male athletes since -- like it or not -- they garner outsized attention for coming out versus women.

With Sam being cut halfway through the NFL season and without ever stepping on the field during a regular season game, I think it will be a while before we see another player come out publicly. There just isn't much upside and the perception will linger that by being out, Sam hurt his draft status and chance of landing on a team.

That perception is hard to shake:

Sam was the SEC co-defensive player of the year in 2013. Yet he was drafted in the seventh round, 249 out of 256 players selected. That's three rounds and 124 players later than what bookies set his draft order at. It's also by far the lowest any SEC defensive player of the year had been drafted in at least a decade.

Something smelled here. From the moment Sam came out publicly Feb. 9, there were anonymous quotes from NFL personnel people about how his sexuality and the attendant publicity would factor into team's drafting him. Since he was not considered a first- or second-round talent, the thinking went, why take on any "distractions"? Lasting until seven slots before the draft ended was way lower than the majority of mock drafts had predicted.

With the draft winding down, I have always suspected that the league made calls to St. Louis to encourage/cajole/plead with the Rams to take Sam. The Rams had extra draft picks, so they could afford to add Sam, even if defensive line was a strength. He played in college in their home state and would be a popular and familiar choice. Sam not being drafted would have been a huge embarrassment to the league and set back its efforts to appear more inclusive of gays. The Rams saved their collective behinds of the other 31 teams by drafting him and then doing a great job of integrating him onto the team.

During preseason, Sam was tied for third in the league with three sacks and was rated a solid 45th among all defensive ends playing in a 4-3 defense by the statistics site Pro Football Focus. He was the last player cut by the Rams, which made football sense at the time, given how strong their defensive line was. But things got fishy when it took two days for Sam to wind up with another team. He was the only one of 11 players with 2.5 or more sacks in the preseason to not have been kept by their team or picked up immediately by another team. This did not make a lot of sense in a league where pass rushers are at a premium.

Sam was finally picked up by the Dallas Cowboys for their practice squad and even that came with some intrigue. "The Rams waived Michael Sam, the first openly gay player trying to make an NFL roster, he was unemployed for two days," Peter King of MMQB.com and NBC said on opening night. "During that time a league official contacted multiple teams asking if they had evaluated Sam as a probable practice squad player. Now Sam and the NFL avoided a nightmare situation when he signed with the practice squad of the Dallas Cowboys." While the league denied this, it made perfect sense to me and added to the perception that teams were resistant to take Sam.

Any gay player contemplating coming out will need to answer this theoretical -- if Michael Sam had not publicly come out as gay, would he be in the NFL? We'll never know for sure, though there is enough evidence to suggest that would be the case. An established player with no fear of getting cut would be in the best position to come out, but this is the kind of player who will think long and hard about how this benefits him. Does he want what will be intense media attention, at least for a short while? Does he want "gay" pinned to descriptions of him in the media? Is he out to family and close friends and maybe some trusted teammates, so he has no need to take the next step and tell the world? This latter example was the case with Sam at the University of Missouri and he thrived. He was out to those who mattered and was in a comfort zone.

I met Sam only once and can't pretend to know whether he has any regrets. I suspect not. He has been a role model for LGBT people everywhere, athletes or not. Him kissing his boyfriend on live TV during the NFL Draft was a historic cultural moment that will long outlive his athletic career. And he did make it through an NFL training camp and on a practice squad and the sport did not collapse. He proved he belonged.

His NFL career is not yet over. Many players have been cut only to find themselves on a team later that season or in the next training camp and Sam said he will "continue to fight for an opportunity to prove I can play every Sunday." But for now the NFL has no openly gay players and I don't see that changing any time soon.