After Michael Sam performed on the field at the first-ever NFL Veteran Combine in Phoenix before a crowd of NFL coaches, scouts and media, he turned toward the parking lot ready to head back to his hotel. He had requested to not do any media interviews other than a quick one-on-one with Steve Wyche of NFL Network. While some people have claimed he's only interested media attention, it simply couldn't be more untrue.
As he walked toward the exit, one journalist grabbed Sam to say hello. Quickly another jogged over. And another. Within seconds Sam was surrounded by about two dozen journalists who had turned up at the Combine hours before the kickoff of the NFL Annual Meeting. Without someone stepping in, Sam couldn't avoid the questions.
Yet even as he was sucked into a sudden media interview he didn't want, Sam became more comfortable with every question.
"What have you learned from this whole experience?"
"What did you set out to prove today?"
All of the questions were about football. None of the questions had anything to do with him being gay.
Has Michael Sam been frozen out of the NFL?
A year ago today Michael Sam came out publicly to a tsunami of support. Yet comments from NFL executives foretold his next 12 months as he struggled to latch onto a team as an openly gay man. Now he's fighting harder than ever to get into the league.
At the NFL Rookie Combine last year Sam stood before the media and asked to be known as a football player, not a gay football player. It was tough for some people to understand, since he had just announced publicly that he's gay. Yet most went along with the sentiment, happy to encourage him to focus on football first.
When he announced a docuseries with Oprah Winfrey shortly after the 2014 NFL Draft, and then most recently signed onto Dancing With The Stars, some in the public and media erupted claiming he was taking advantage of being gay to find opportunities. While he said he wanted to be a football player, he seemed perfectly happy to be a gay football player too.
It's a difficult nuance to understand. Gay athletes are caught in a catch-22, stuck in the closet for fear of being known as a "gay football player," yet only able to be their true selves by coming out. How do you ask someone questions while ignoring the very reason you want to ask said questions? Conversely, how can Sam, who's receiving benefits from having come out as gay, not want to be asked about the very thing that has made him a household name? It's a delicate balance.
For Sam, whose future in football was suddenly tossed up in the air when he came out publicly, making an income has become a very real concern. With every opportunity he takes, critics point to his assumed lack of focus on football. People who want to find fault with his every move do so gleefully.
Yet today the media and Sam took a step forward together. While some in the press pool wanted to ask Sam about the role of his sexual orientation in being denied by the NFL (and I know because they asked me), they focused on football. I encouraged them to ask the NFL executives, not Sam, about those issues. Hopefully I won't be the only one asking anymore.
The results of the Veteran Combine for Sam were mixed. His 40-yard-dash time was disappointing, at around five seconds. Yet I thought he looked a bit looser and more fluid in many of the drills. Interestingly, I overheard a scout say to someone else of another player who wasn't Sam, "his 40 time wasn't great but that really doesn't matter." It will be interesting to see if the media and teams afford Sam the same luxury.
NFL teams looking for reasons to not sign Sam will focus on that 40 time and his Rookie Combine performance. Teams looking to sign the most talented player will focus on Sam's performance in the drills, his senior year at Missouri and his preseason with the Rams.
If nothing else the first NFL Veteran Combine will have been a step in the right direction for Sam and the media. After a year of answering off-and-on questions about being gay, it seems the media is moving on.
The question now is whether the NFL teams themselves will do the same.