Firstly, Missouri defensive end Michael Sam’s announcement that he’s gay is a momentous occasion for American sports. I’m not sure that can be overstated. A lot of people I follow on Twitter filled my timeline with “I’ll be excited for when this sort of thing ISN’T news”, which struck me as code for “I don’t want to hear about this.” If you truly do want to see a time wherein this sort of announcement is commonplace and routine, then you must recognize that this is a major step toward that reality. We’re not to the point yet that this isn’t a big deal, and we were never going to get there without someone like Michael Sam.
If you needed a reminder of how hard things are going to be for Sam, the anonymous quotes from player personnel executives in Peter King’s SI piece have you covered. A sample:
‘“We talked about it this week,” the GM said. “First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: He’s going to have expectations about where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
I asked this general manager: “Do you think he’ll be drafted?”
“No,” he said.’
That strikes me as backwards thinking. The only way things like this will be more normal in ten years is if more players come out between now and then. This is the first step on that road. Furthermore, this anonymous GM cites the potential for a locker room distraction as a reason for not drafting Sam. This is a big enough talking point around the league that Jon Stewart did a segment on it last night, and it’s a shocking display of willful ignorance. There are obvious, storied examples of how integration actually creates a stronger cohesion. It happened with the racial integration of sports and the military, and when the military began allowing openly gay service members in 2011, there was no negative effect. We have specific examples of this exact “distraction” concern not actually mattering, and yet the same people persist with it as a way to avoid change. (I also have limited patience for anonymous quotes on topics like this.)
I agree with what Deadspin’s Drew Magary wrote here, that teams “would much prefer the headache of not drafting Sam to the headache of drafting him.” But the thing is, that potential headache is all perception! Manti Te’o was a headache too, but the Chargers took him and it disappeared. Riley Cooper’s story blew up for two weeks, but then he started catching touchdowns and no one cared. Sam’s story will obviously have more staying power, but there’s one big difference: it’s not a negative story. There will be more media attention, of course, but it won’t be for the wrong reasons. A team with any sort of basic competence with PR should be looking at this as a positive opportunity to embrace, not as a minefield to avoid. Hopefully there’s more than one team that views it that way.
With that out of the way, I feel like I’ve done Sam a bit of disservice by focusing entirely upon his sexuality. As a draft prospect, he should absolutely be evaluated based on his potential to perform on the field. (Obviously prospects are graded on intangibles, and off-field incidents can be red flags. But being gay isn’t a red flag, and by all accounts Sam was a quality locker room presence at Missouri.) What do the Bears think of Michael Sam? Phil Emery released a statement on Sam yesterday:
“Michael stated with great poise and confidence who he is as a person and football player and I have tremendous respect for him in the way he conveyed his thoughts and the courage it took to state them publicly,” Emery said in a statement. “Each and every player in the NFL is a unique individual, as we all are in life. We all ultimately gain respect in our jobs by how well we perform at our chosen profession and if the level in which we perform adds positively to the collective goal of success. Michael stated this and I agree with his thoughts,” Emery said. “It is about his skill set as a football player to add positively to a team’s goals and that’s how he will be evaluated.”
First of all, kudos to Emery and the Bears for that statement. Second, Sam is a consensus mid-round prospect; ESPN’s Scouts Inc. has him ranked 119 overall. I’m not sure how that anonymous GM from earlier could gather that he’s “overrated”; I suppose the fact that he won SEC defensive player of the year despite being a 4th-round prospect might factor in. But even though he isn’t likely to go early (and wasn’t likely to go early before his announcement) he absolutely should be drafted.
Does that mean the Bears should be interested? On one hand, I could see it; he’s a bit of a “tweener” as Michael C. Wright notes for ESPN Chicago. Sam played 4-3 defensive end in college, but he’s a bit undersized for the position. The Bears obviously value versatility, and their selection of Shea McClellin demonstrated Phil Emery’s willingness to go outside the box. The flip side to that, of course, is that McClellin has been a very big disappointment, having been unable to make the switches the Bears projected him to make. I’d think the Bears might take a look at Sam in that mid-round range, especially if he slides to to “concerns” about how big a “distraction” his presence might be. If he’s still available in the fifth or sixth round, there’s surplus value there, and I could see the Bears taking him.
If they do select him, I’m confident that it will be a decision based solely upon his football abilities. And since that’s good enough for Michael Sam, it’s good enough for me.