Michael Sam is ready to make his NFL dream a reality. But is the NFL ready to embrace the reality of Michael Sam?
The former Missouri defensive lineman, named a first-team All-American after the 2013 college football season, is on the verge of becoming the first openly gay player in NFL history. For Sam to make history, he will need one of 32 NFL teams to give him a chance.
“Where I go, it doesn’t matter," Sam told Robin Roberts of Good Morning America on Wednesday, a day before the 2014 NFL draft began. "As long as I get to play and I put a jersey on my back, it’s just awesome. I’m going to be proud of wherever I go.”
Through the first three rounds of the 2014 NFL draft at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on Thursday and Friday, no team selected the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year who announced that he was gay in February. The draft resumes on Saturday at noon with rounds four through seven. Since 2004, only one player to be named SEC Defensive Player of the Year was not selected in the first 33 selections of the draft. Louisiana State's Chad Lavalais earned the honor in the 2003 season and was the 142nd overall selection in the 2004 NFL draft.
“For them not to select him would be very problematic,” Cyd Zeigler, the founder of OutSports.com, told NBC News ahead of the draft. “If he isn’t selected, it’s a public black eye on the league.”
The 24-year-old from Hitchcock, Texas first publicly discussed his sexuality in interviews with The New York Times and ESPN after completing his standout 2013 season at Missouri. He told both outlets that he had come out to his teammates during a preseason football practice before the Tigers' 12-2 campaign. With the support and acceptance of his teammates, Sam went on to lead the vaunted SEC in sacks (11.5) and tackles for a loss (19).
"I understand how big this is," Sam told ESPN in February. "It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL."
Sam's courageous decision to come out was widely hailed, with President Barack Obama among those applauding it.
Amid the messages of support and congratulations, several unnamed NFL personnel members interviewed by Sports Illustrated claimed that coming out would adversely affect Sam's draft stock.
"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," an anonymous NFL player personnel assistant said in February, reported Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans of Sports Illustrated. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
According to ESPN, Sam was viewed as a likely mid-round in most NFL draft projections at the time of his announcement and was rated as the 12th-best outside pass rusher in the draft by ESPN Scouts Inc. As noted by Bleacher Report NFL Draft columnist Curt Popejoy, the Mizzou star dropped from No. 90 to No. 160 on the CBS draft prospect board in a matter of hours. By the first day of the draft, Sam had dropped to No. 169 on CBS' board and was projected as a fifth-round pick.
Less than two weeks after his landmark announcement, Sam stepped into the spotlight at the NFL Scouting Combine. Sporting a small rainbow-colored pin that read "Stand With Sam," he faced what may have been the largest crowd ever for an individual player press conference at the annual event.
"I wish you’d say, ‘Hey Michael Sam, how’s football going? How’s training going?’ I’d love for you to ask me that question," he responded when asked if he wished his sexual orientation wasn't a major story. "But it is what it is. I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”
Measured at 6' 2" and 261 pounds at the scouting event in Indianapolis, Sam followed up his confident performance at the podium with a lackluster performance in the drills, including the 40-yard dash, vertical leap and bench press. He improved upon his performances during a subsequent workout at Missouri but concerns about his size, strength and true NFL position persisted as the draft approached.
"The reason you don't hear much about Sam anymore a few days before the draft is this is the time for real players," wrote Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Based on discussions over the last month about Sam's capability as a player with about two dozen NFL executives in personnel, he's regarded almost as a non-entity."
Of 21 unnamed scouts polled by the Journal Sentinel, only nine said they would select Sam during the seven-round draft. Five others indicated they would sign him as a free agent while seven others didn't express interest at all.
"It's a tough fit when you're short and slow and a try-hard overachiever," an unnamed AFC executive told the Journal Sentinel. "That's the issue."
Given these published reservations about Sam's physical limitations, Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com estimated that Sam’s chances of being selected during the draft are only about 50-50. Sean Gregory of Time.com cautioned against overreacting if Sam is not one of the 256 players selected, noting that many undrafted players are invited to training camps and reach the NFL as undrafted free agents.
"So if you’re a Sam fan, or are just rooting for his social message — a gay player can be accepted in the most “manly” American team sport — don’t freak out if his name isn’t called," Gregory wrote. "If no NFL team extends Sam an invite to camp, that’s when things get fishy. That would reek of weakness and bigotry."