Just past the midway point of the 2014 NFL season, Michael Sam is not with a team and has not made an active roster. While some apologists claim he's just not good enough for the NFL, many others in and outside of football are scratching their heads as to how this could be happening to a man who 12 months ago was being discussed by some as a possible first-round draft pick.
With every week that passes featuring mediocre players taking the field for NFL teams, and various clubs showing no ability to stop the pass, the reasoning for the NFL's collective snub of Sam becomes more and more clear:
Michael Sam is not on an active roster today because he is openly gay.
While a lot of talk had been made about the NFL Draft history of SEC Defensive Players of the Year (Michael is the first ever to not be selected in the first five rounds, and only the second to not go in the first two rounds), there are other numbers that tell a more compelling story of the history that is being made by the NFL keeping Sam on the sideline.
Since 2000, 73 different men have won the Defensive Player of the Year award in the big five football conferences: ACC, Big Ten, Big XII, Pac-12 and SEC. Of those 73 men, only four have fared worse in the NFL Draft than Sam, all of whom went undrafted.
- Jackson Jeffcoat was the Big XII Defensive Player of the Year just last season. The Texas linebacker signed with the Seattle Seahawks after the draft, was cut in August, then signed with Washington before Week 1. Incidentally, no Texas players were drafted in 2014. He's currently on Washington's active roster.
- Mark Herzlich was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008. The former Boston College linebacker signed with the New York Giants in 2011, made the 53-man roster and just re-signed with the Giants this past March.
- Nick Reid was the 2005 Big XII Defensive Player of the Year and went undrafted in 2006. He played in NFL Europe and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in spring of 2006. He was cut by the Chiefs and assigned to NFL Europe again, later signed by the Chiefs after the Super Bowl in 2007. If the practice squad had 10 spots in 2006 the way it does today, chances are good Reid would have been on that practice squad.
- Dale Robinson, the 2005 Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year out of Arizona State, got the least traction of any of these players, going undrafted and being cut by the Indianapolis Colts before the start of the 2006 season. Again, the practice squads were smaller in size then.
The three former Defensive Players of the Year to go in the sixth round: Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones in 2011, Oklahoma linebacker Rufus Alexander in 2006 and Oregon State DE Bill Swancutt in 2005. All three men were on active rosters in the NFL for at least three seasons.
None of these players – except Sam – were drafted in the seventh round. It's interesting, though, to compare Sam to Nick Reed (not the same Nike Reid as above), the 2008 Pac-10 Defensive Lineman of the Year. He was selected 247th in the 2009 NFL Draft (two spots ahead of where Sam was drafted five years later). Like Sam, Reed was a defensive end (for Oregon) who had an "undersized" label. In fact, Reed was an inch shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Sam.
Unlike Sam, Reed made the Seahawks' active roster that season after a strong preseason. Sam was cut by the St. Louis Rams after his strong preseason in which he was fourth in the NFL in sacks.
Reed was given the chance to grow and prove himself with a team. So far Sam, a similar player, has not been given that equal opportunity.
Of all 73 men to win one of these prestigious defensive awards from the big conferences, Sam is only the third one ever – and the first to be drafted – to not be with a team halfway through his rookie season. And again, if practice squads had 10 spots in 2006, Reid very well may have been with the Chiefs.
To put it another way, of the 73 DPOYs in the big conferences since 2000, 95 percent were selected earlier than Michael Sam; all but two since 2000 (97 percent) – and 100 percent in the last eight years – made an active roster his rookie season ... all except for Sam.
Even all of the DPOYs of the Mountain West Conference since 2005 have made an active roster their rookie season, including last year's Shaquil Barrett, who went undrafted this year and is now on the Denver Broncos active roster.
Why is Sam not with a team right now? Why was he not selected before the seventh round? Because he's gay. Period. That's it.
Remember the CBS Sports draft ranking of rookies three hours before Sam came out in February? He was ranked No. 90 on their board, slated to go in the third round. After he came out, he was suddenly less valuable, his sacks worth less than they had been just hours earlier and CBS dropped him to 160 – slated for the fifth round. What happened to drop him? He came out as gay. Period. That's it.
All of the guys who win these DPOY Awards represent potential. That's what NFL teams are searching for in their rookies right now: Who has the potential to contribute not necessarily this year, but in the years to come?
Sam is not being considered equally in that way. He is being held to a higher standard. Instead of potential to succeed, Sam must succeed now to make a roster. He must play like an All-Pro simply to crack a 53-man roster; he has to play like a starter just to make a practice squad. As he works out on his own, away from the league's 32 teams, he's not given that opportunity to show his stuff on the field. The bar for him has been set that much higher.
After the NFL Draft, we were told Sam would either prove himself in the preseason or he wouldn't. He did. He was fourth in the league in sacks, made various other run-stopping and quarterback-pressure plays and seemed to get better as training camp wore on.
Have you seen some of the crappy play in the NFL this season? While the league is speckled with superstars, it's littered with underachievers, guys who show the occasional flash of brilliance but who can't make a big play to save their careers. Some of these mediocre guys – like Trent Richardson – have two first-round picks used on them. They're given opportunities season after season to prove themselves because of their potential.
Sam gets cut.
Beyond everything on the field, Sam's intangibles make him an ideal player. He avoids the media, lessening his potential to bring external problems to a team. He's fun to be around, bringing life to a locker room. He'll do whatever the team asks of him, even playing some offense for the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad.
"Mike came in here and did everything we asked him to do," St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher said in September.
Every other DPOY from a big conference drafted since 2000 has made a roster. In the preseason, Sam proved he could play in the league. He has been a model citizen, winning over teammates with the Rams. He has eschewed media attention to focus on football. He has said and done all the right things.
Yet the lone openly gay NFL player is not on a team, not even on a practice squad.
There are 2,016 NFL players with teams right now. Last year's SEC Defensive Player of the Year and the conference leader in sacks is not one of them.
I have no doubt the league office wants Sam with a team. I imagine if the people in Manhattan could wave a magic wand, he'd be on a roster. But they can't. I believe the Rams cut Sam for "football reasons." Every team can drum up "football reasons" for not bringing him in. For the gay player, everyone has a reason to not want him.
For each of the 70-plus other big-time DPOYs drafted since 2000, someone found a reason to want him.
If he were straight, Sam would be on a team. He would have been drafted no later than the fifth round (and not by a team already stacked at that position). All of the nonsense about Sam not being good enough for the NFL would have never been started, with everyone focusing on the very elements they focused on before he came out: In college football's best conference, he was the best defensive player last season.
"Michael Sam has the ability to help NFL teams win on Sunday," Aeneas Williams told me, "and I expect to see him play."
League sources have confirmed with me that there are teams with an eye on Sam. It's possible one of these teams could sign him any day now.
But for now, Sam sitting at home watching games in his living room in Week 9 was already historic. No player with his pedigree has been treated like this since at least Bill Clinton was in the White House (if not longer). If one of these interested teams doesn't make a big move in the next couple of weeks, the NFL and its teams will have some serious explaining to do. If Sam weren't a better man, he might even consider a (well-founded) discrimination lawsuit.
For now, there is no other explanation for the collective snub of Sam: NFL team front offices are not treating Michael Sam equally simply because he's openly gay.