The St. Louis Rams drafted Michael Sam in 2014 after the NFL promised not to choose the team as the subject for HBO's "Hard Knocks" series on training camp.
At least that's what multiple sources told Howard Balzer, a longtime NFL writer based in St. Louis. And Sam seems to buy into the possibility.
Shortly after his college career at Missouri ended, Sam came put publicly, acknowledging he is gay. The SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Sam was considered a fifth-round pick at best. But, as the draft proceeded on the final day, it appeared he might not be drafted at all. It is believed the NFL didn't want to face questions about that eventuality, and the Rams were viewed as the ideal spot because of St. Louis' proximity to the Missouri campus in Columbia, 90 miles away, and head coach Jeff Fisher's ability to deal with whatever distractions there might be.
So it was that the Rams saved the day, selecting Sam with the 249th pick of a 256-player draft.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher pushed back hard. "That in itself is absolutely absurd, it's 100 percent incorrect," Fisher said. "I was really taken aback by those comments. It's insulting, from my standpoint, as it relates to Michael. We had three seventh-round picks. When we drafted Michael he was the best player on the board. Who in their right mind would think that you give up a draft choice to avoid doing something like that?"
As for Sam, here is what he tweeted after Balzer's report on Wednesday:
I'm not surprised at all https://t.co/wGnyFpuIVP— Michael Sam (@MichaelSamNFL) March 23, 2016
Sam is out of football, so Balzer's report is just a footnote in what two years ago was the biggest story in the NFL that spring. He doesn't name his sources, obviously, so there is no way to verify what they told him. However, I don't consider a quid pro quo between the NFL and the Rams on Sam to be farfetched.
Had Sam gone undrafted after coming out as gay, it would have been a huge black eye to the NFL in its attempts to show that the sport has changed and was accepting of gay people. People would have wondered how the SEC co-defensive player of the year would be passed by 32 teams and 256 picks. Prior to the draft, Sam was projected to go anywhere from the third to seventh round, so the fact that he lasted until near the end was a nail biter that made the normally boring third day of draft must-see TV. And when Sam kissed his boyfriend live on ESPN after being drafted, it became an iconic moment.
All in all, the Rams did the NFL a huge favor. Sam is a defensive lineman and the Rams were deep at that position, so drafting another player at that position was puzzling. But the Rams had 10 picks that year instead of the usual seven, so using one near the end of the draft on Sam was not giving up much. A deal was not out of the realm of possibility.
Deal or not, Sam was given a legitimate chance by the Rams to make the team. He played in every preseason game and was among the team's final cuts. He was accepted by his teammates and the expected "media circus" never materialized after the initial hubbub following the draft. Regardless of why the Rams drafted Sam, it's hard to fault their treatment of him and they gave him a chance that 31 other teams did not.
As for "Hard Knocks," fans like the show for its inside look into a team in training camp, but many teams actively resists being chosen because of the intrusion of the cameras into every facet of camp. The league even has a process that exempts most teams in a given year.
The Rams might not have wanted any part of "Hard Knocks" in 2014 but the team has changed its tune and will be the show's team this summer. They are now the Los Angeles Rams and we all know how well cameras and Hollywood mix.