By signing Michael Sam to its practice squad today, the Dallas Cowboys got help at a position where it is woefully weak. It had the added benefit of sparing the NFL from intense examination over homophobia just as the season is starting.
The Cowboys announced the signing of Sam at Coach Jason Garrett's weekly news conference. I repeat -- the Cowboys coach used part of his news conference to announce the signing of a PRACTICE TEAM player, four days before their season opener. Sam's signing was the lead to ESPN's "SportsCenter" during a heavy sports week. This is how big the story is and how big the bullet is that the league dodged.
By signing with the Cowboys, Sam has become the first openly gay NFL player on a roster, and has the chance to becoming the first to play in a game if he is ever called up to the active roster; last season, four players were called up from the Cowboy's practice squad to the regular roster.
Sam played very well in the preseason, leading the Rams in sacks, and he has a legit chance to be called up to the active roster at some point.The Cowboys signed him to fill a need -- their five preseason sacks were only two more than Sam had by himself with the Rams, and even Yosemite Sam would be an upgrade over some of their pass rushers.
Being gay was not the reason he signed by the Cowboys. Yet had Sam gone unsigned by every team, it would have been obvious that being gay was the impediment. That's not just my opinion -- it's one very widely shared by people that cover the league and people in the LGBT community. Here's why:
- I could accept Sam being cut by the Rams. They drafted him and gave him every chance to prove himself in the preseason. He was cut because the Rams are strongest at the defensive line position, and he was the odd man out.
- I could accept Sam not being signed on waivers the next day by other teams. He would have had to been placed on an active roster, and teams are reluctant to do that since they have pretty much settled on their 53 players. In addition, Sam is not very versatile and does not play special teams, the latter role key to end-of-the-roster players.
- I could accept Sam not being signed to the Rams practice squad. They are deep at defensive end and have glaring needs elsewhere.
- What I could not accept was Sam being passed over by every practice squad. There are 32 teams and 10 practice players, and there's no way Sam was not among the best 320 players for those jobs. His body of work in the preseason showed that. Until the Cowboys signed him, Sam was the only one of 12 players with 2.5 preseason sacks who had not found an NFL job.
The smoking gun came via anonymous comments made to NFL reporters Mike Freeman and Peter King. One GM told Freeman: "Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention." From King, we learned: "I talked to three [NFL] team architects over the weekend. They're concerned about the circus coming to town with the first openly gay player trying to make an NFL roster."
What bullshit. Any G.M. who steered clear of Sam fearing a distraction should quit, since he doesn't have the balls to do the job. Dealing with distractions is one of the job duties of someone in management -- players get arrested, players get suspended, coaches screw up, injuries ravage a roster and all this occurs under a lot of media scrutiny. In addition, there is no bigger "media circus" than Super Bowl week, yet it's something 30 teams would kill for each year as they watch the two participants soak up the attention.
All the distraction talk in this case was code for "We're uncomfortable with the openly gay guy." Here is how Rams coach Jeff Fisher addressed the distraction angle: "There was no distraction. If someone perceived or thought there may be a distraction-they weren't in the building. We've said that all along. This was a football decision. Mike fit in very, very well. He was fun to be around. He was a good teammate. There was no issue there. Again, as I said earlier, I was pulling for him and it didn't work out. It just didn't work out."
We don't know the names of these anonymous worrywarts who talked to Freeman and King, so we can't paint every franchise with the same brush, but the fact that it took Sam three days to make a practice squad is telling. Maybe an openly gay player has to be that much better for teams to overlook that irrelevant -- in football terms -- fact about him. If Sam was not out, I doubt he would have had sweated as much.
Let's hold off breaking out the champagne yet. It still took too long for Sam to make a practice squad and we don't know how long he'll stick. But by taking Sam, Dallas showed that it put winning over some outdated prejudices. It also saved NFL teams from having to address a topic many of them would wish would go away. I never thought I would write this, but: How 'bout them Cowboys!?