Considering Michael Sam had such an effective preseason, it's hard to imagine that there wasn't more than one team dying to add him to the practice squad once the St. Louis Rams waived him more than a week ago, perhaps an indication that the NFL still isn't ready for its first openly gay player.
Michael Parente (@michaelparente)
I hate to be “that guy,” but I find it hard to believe a defensive lineman who finished with three sacks and 11 tackles in just four preseason games had to wait nearly 48 hours for one of the NFL’s 32 teams to add him to their practice squad.
A player lauded for his quickness off the edge, his effort, his “high motor” – all the right intangibles – was essentially passed over by 31 teams in favor of 310 other fringe players (10 per team on the practice squad) who weren’t good enough to make someone else’s 53-man roster. Those 31 teams are apparently all set with depth on the defensive line and have no need for a situational pass-rusher who could help out in a pinch.
In a league where officials promise to do everything within their power to make this more of a passers’ orgy than ever before, a league where three, maybe four, quarterbacks, could throw for more than 5,000 yards this season, you’d think a player with the potential to be an effective third-down weapon would be a hot commodity on the waiver-wire. You’d think teams would jump at the opportunity to stash him on the practice squad as an insurance policy. Guys who can get to the quarterback these days should be treated like left-handed relievers in baseball, the kind of specialist you can never have enough of.
Instead, the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team had to sit around and wait while the rest of the league debated whether or not acquiring him was worth the inevitable media storm or other distractions that come with this sort of anomaly. Michael Sam eventually landed with the Dallas Cowboys, who recognized their need for help with the pass rush and signed him to their practice squad, acknowledging that Sam could play a factor down the road depending on how the regular season unfolds.
It’d be unfair to suggest the St. Louis Rams, who drafted Sam in the seventh round before cutting him at the end of the preseason, or the other teams who declined to add him to their practice squad once he hit the market are just homophobic. Maybe some of those teams needed help in other areas and went out and shopped accordingly. But it’d be equally naïve to suggest Sam’s sexual orientation and the baggage that comes with it wasn’t somewhat of a factor.
As far as making St. Louis’ 53-man roster was concerned, that was always going to be a long shot. Sam was a good, not great, player in college, and he performed horribly at the NFL’s scouting combine, which, as irrelevant as it might be, is still considered a prime evaluating tool for general managers and scouts. Suffice to say, there’s a reason Sam wasn’t drafted higher than the seventh round. He’s also 25 years old, which is incredibly old for a rookie by NFL standards. For reference, Rob Gronkowski, a five-year veteran, is only seven months older than Sam, so there’s not much long-term potential with Sam when you consider it would hypothetically take him two or three years just to became an every-down player, at which point he’d be closing in on 30.
When Rams’ head coach Jeff Fisher says Sam not making the roster had nothing to do with sexual orientation, I believe him. He’s the only coach in the league who stuck his neck out and gave him a shot, and he gave him plenty of opportunities to excel in the preseason, many of which Sam took advantage of. The distractions were minimal, save for the embarrassing ESPN report on Sam and his teammates’ showering habits. This was what is commonly called a football decision. He didn’t fit the team’s short- and long-term plans, so he had to go.
I do, however, believe some teams passed on drafting Sam because they were afraid of what the reaction would be in the locker room or what kind of media circus it would create at training camp. When Sam kissed his boyfriend on live television after learning he was drafted by the Rams, Miami safety Don Jones tweeted it was “horrible.” You think he’s the only who feels this way? He’s just one of the few dumb enough to put it on the internet. No one understands the culture of a locker room better than that team’s coach, and you can bet some of the other 31 coaches in the league knew it’d be a volatile mix if Sam were part of that fabric.
It goes back to what Tony Dungy said in July when he suggested the media crush would create a circus-like atmosphere. The last thing any coach wants is a distraction. It’s hard enough keeping 53 players on the same page without any background noise, let alone with a hoard of reporters asking team captains what they think about gays in their locker room. Even the teams that wanted to take a flier on Sam once he cleared waivers this week probably backed off, figuring the risk wasn’t worth the reward.
Had Sam shown zero promise in the preseason or made no impact plays whatsoever, the league-wide dismissal would’ve been easier to absorb, but given how well he played, and given the state of this league and the need for pass-rushing defensive ends, it’s hard to believe every decision made by every team was based on pure talent alone.
Sam can’t be credited with breaking any barriers until he breaks an active roster and makes it onto the field in a game that counts. Maybe he’s not even the guy to do it. Maybe it’ll take a can’t-miss prospect, a potential Pro Bowl quarterback or perennial 1,000-yard rusher. Sam’s neither of those, and this blurred line between what’s purely a football decision and what might border on paranoia mixed with a pinch of homophobia makes this difficult to process. Truth is, we may never know if Sam is getting a fair shake.
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