Op-ed: In The Long Run, Michael Sam Being Cut Was About Homophobia

By Michelle Garcia

Originally published on Advocate.com September 02 2014 6:00 AM ET

Michael Sam was the 249th guy selected in the NFL draft this year, and that, in itself, was the beginning of the end.

Earlier this year, Sam had done something extraordinary. He could have taken the route that many players in the league have taken: gotten picked early, taken a secure spot, stayed closeted, keep playing, and make money. Instead, Michael Sam dared to do something that people like us — that includes people like me, who work in an office surrounded by LGBT people and incredible allies — had never done before. Facing a probable career in the NFL, Michael Sam came out.

Coaches, team owners, and players across the league were asked whether they would be OK with having a gay player. "Of course," they said. "As long as he plays well."

Interesting, since the playing abilities of the SEC defensive player of the year were then suddenly being intensely scrutinized. We watched him get picked apart by every ex-football player in a suit who gets paid to make pronouncements on television, and by anonymous scouts and football "gurus" who now claimed his skills were only satisfactory. His performance at the NFL Combine was admittedly not the best, but according to them, it was as though he basically just strolled through the whole thing and forgot how to play football.

The fact that Sam was the SEC defensive player of the year after leading his college team Mizzou to a title helped play into his undeniable factor. In order to break this sort of barrier, it was largely believed that the first openly gay player to be drafted and signed into the NFL would have to be undeniably great, so that his sexuality couldn't be a factor. And in the last nine years, all SEC defensive players of the year have been drafted in the first round.

Did Sam coming out decrease his draft stock? Yes. That wasn't the surprise. It was the fact that homophobia kept him undrafted by the seventh round.

Quite frankly, it's rare that a seventh rounder even gets chosen for the full roster. And despite a solid college career, Sam was now a seventh rounder. He was now deemed an in-betweener, and "too small." He was now labeled a "distraction." You know, unlike the other buffoons that make NFL rosters, tweet dumb things, or flip off other players, and make buckets of money in the process.

Of course we celebrated when Sam got picked up by the St. Louis Rams. His jersey became a hot item, and even Texas sportscaster Dale Hansen became a nationally recognized name because of his emphatic words backing Sam.

But by the time Michael Sam finished a pretty damn good rookie pre-season with 11 tackles and three sacks, it's as though his performance barely mattered. According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, other rookies with those stats are on 53-man rosters right now.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher has said repeatedly that Sam should be on an NFL team. "Mike's got the ability," Fisher said once again in a news conference this weekend. "Mike played well. He has the ability to play some place. It's got to be the right place, it's got to be a fit."

Did the Rams cut Michael Sam out of sheer homophobia? I doubt it. But it was homophobic reasons that got him to such a precarious position in the first place.

While the Rams were able to at least push this dream of having an out player a little further, and he was given a platform to show the entire league that he has potential for the pros, at the end of the day, the Rams did not have any use for him — they already had a nearly-full slate of defensive linemen, minus the one spot that undrafted rookie Ethan Westbrooks now has. And when 31 other teams had the chance to pick Sam up, it seems none of them needed him (and according to Outsports, at least six teams could probably use his talents right now).

Just in the last year, all of the the professional leagues (the NBA, WNBA, MLB, NHL, and even the NFL) have made several outward attempts to appear more welcoming of LGBT athletes, staff, and fans. I don't want to believe that homophobia still persists in this way in the NFL. Like I said, I don't think Fisher and the Rams are a homophobic bunch; they're the ones who took a chance on Sam, and undeniably stood by him. But looking back, all of the fanfare from these pro leagues feels like simple lip service.

Did teams that would have been the perfect fit for Sam end up siding with pundits that suddenly deemed him "too small" or "too slow?" Are teams really that scared of having a so-called distraction?

I wonder what message this sends to other athletes coming up in the high school and college football circuit. What does this convey to the closeted or barely-out players currently in the league? Is this a system that will continue to shut out gay players, offering the consolation prize of working on the practice squad — maybe?

By the way, when people talk about athletes worrying about how much money they'll lose after coming out, here's a prime example. Sam will be able to keep his $45,000 signing bonus, but had he made the 53-player roster, he would have earned $420,000 this season. And if he makes any team's practice squad for the upcoming season (he officially did not make the Rams' squad, but other teams can still take him), he could earn up to $107,100; that's based on whether he stays on for every week throughout the season.

For now, Sam's looking for a practice squad that needs a defensive player like him. He only has a short period of time to do so. But with his typical grace, Michael Sam shared a statement about all of this happening on Saturday night. He wrote, "The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy, this is a lesson I've always known. The journey continues."

He's most certainly right. Nothing worth it is ever easy. And for him, the journey is most certainly not over. I've never spoken to Michael Sam, but I can tell he has formidable character. And whether he's coaching, or working with a practice squad, or playing in the Canadian Football League, Michael Sam is a trailblazer, and no team can take that away from him.

 

MICHELLE GARCIA is the managing editor of Advocate.com. Follow her on Twitter @MzMichGarcia.