Updated Aug. 30, 2014
Michael Sam has been cut by the St. Louis Rams, and it wasn't because of homophobia. However, if the other 31 NFL teams pass up on Sam in the next 24 hours, homophobia will play a role.
Sam has proven he can play in the NFL. Only a couple other players have more sacks this preseason than his three. In a league that places a high value on pass rushers, and continues to develop rules that help passing offenses, guys like Sam are coveted. Sacks aside, he’s played well or very well in each of his three preseason games. Various Rams beat reporters, including Jim Thomas and Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, have lauded Sam’s performance. In limited preseason action he’s racked up five tackles, in addition to the three sacks.
And in case anyone tries to dismiss this because it’s "just preseason," his first sack on Johnny Manziel was against 6-foot-6 offensive tackle Martin Wallace, who’s been on the Browns roster for a year.
Sam’s done all of this with as much pressure on him as anyone else in the NFL has ever felt. If there was any doubt, Sam’s ESPYs speech in July made it clear he knows the hopes of an entire national community rest on his shoulders.
"This year I have a lot of experience being part of something bigger than myself," Sam said. "The way I see it, my responsibility at this moment in history is to stand up for everybody out there who wants nothing more than to be themselves openly."
Just like his sack-fumble that won the Cotton Bowl for Missouri, Sam is thriving in a pressure-cooker – an intangible every NFL coach would kill for in a player. Sam has earned a roster spot.
However, with the Rams he was a victim of too much talent on the defensive line. The Rams drafted Sam with the hopes of keeping him on the roster. But there is more at work for a team than one player’s performance. NFL rosters are, at the end of the day, a numbers game:
1. An NFL team can only keep 53 players on their final roster. If the Rams could keep 100 players, Sam would be a shoo-in for a spot. They can’t. He’s not.
2. NFL teams will generally keep eight to nine defensive linemen. Because of the restricted roster size, they can’t have as many defensive ends – or, for that matter, wide receivers or quarterbacks – as they want. They have to make choices, and they have to have depth at every position. By keeping a 10th defensive lineman, they have one fewer offensive tackle or tight end. It’s a numbers game.
3. The Rams currently have eight veteran defensive linemen: Chris Long, Kendall Langford, Michael Brockers, Robert Quinn, William Hayes, Aaron Donald, Eugene Sims and Alex Carrington.
4. Fisher kept nine defensive linemen, which meant undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks grabbed the last spot. Westbrooks has had a very strong camp and preseason. While Sam has seemed to get better each week, Westbrooks shined more the first two weeks. Westbrooks also brings versatility that Sam doesn’t have: He can play tackle as well as end. For roster spots Nos. 51, 52 & 53, versatility is key.
5. Sam’s chances of demonstrating his versatility have come on special teams. He has played a good amount on the field-goal-blocking unit. On kickoff return in game one against the Saints, he looked hesitant and seemed to miss a block. "It’s rare to find a defensive end playing special teams in the National Football League," Fisher said after week one. "They don’t do it." He took at stab for a minute at a 3-4 outside linebacker, but the short stint didn’t work out. Sam is a defensive end.
Ultimately the Rams staff made a decision as to which ninth player – Sam or Westbrooks – would best fit their team on the field.
What they didn’t consider when making the decision is the fact that Sam is gay. Fisher and general manager Les Snead were sitting next to Sam when he was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award by ESPN. As Fisher said, he was rooting for Sam.
They did not choose to be the first NFL team to draft an openly gay player so they could be the first team to cut an openly gay player - it just happened that way.
Yet there’s a funny thing about that draft, something that could become a big source of contention again in a week: Each of the other 31 NFL teams passed up on him in May. If all 31 NFL teams pass up on Sam again, after proving himself on the field, it will be because of homophobia.
As we said, pass rushers are at a premium and Sam can rush the passer quite well. Maybe not as a starter right away, but certainly as a valuable reserve. His three preseason sacks are as many as five teams have recorded.
Teams passed up on him in the May draft for one of three reasons: 1. He just wasn’t a fit for the scheme (3-4 teams like the Packers, Saints and Steelers); 2. They bought into the argument that he was too slow, too short and too weak to play the position in the NFL; or 3. They didn’t want an openly gay player on their team.
Reason No. 1 lets about half the teams off the hook (though one of them could take a flier on him if the Rams cut him).
Sam has cleared up any concern about Reason No. 2. We don’t know if he’s an eventual starter or a career backup, but there’s no question Sam can and will contribute to a team in a measurable way. Despite drafting some help at defensive end, some of those 4-3 teams that really suffered rushing the passer last year – like Dallas, Oakland and Jacksonville – could use Sam.
As for reason No. 3, all the myths have been demolished. Sam has not been a distraction (You want distractions? Just tune into the Johnny Manziel Network, aka ESPN). Sam has fit in well with his teammates who enjoy his high energy and sense of humor. They especially loved him mocking Manziel's money gesture after his first sack Saturday. After a brief media flurry at the start of camp, Sam has been treated as just another player. That's a testament to Sam and to the Rams for managing the situation perfectly. If any team passes on him out of fear of "distractions," that's simply code for "we're uncomfortable with an openly gay player on our team."
For each of those clubs where Sam would be a good fit – probably about six to 10 NFL teams – to pass up on him a second time, it would be impossible to argue homophobia didn’t play a major, if not the deciding, role.
This is a joint editorial by Jim Buzinski and Cyd Zeigler, the co-founders of Outsports.