Certain names in the NFL seem particularly fitting: Pat Angerer, linebacker for the Indianapolis Colts; Takeo Spikes, linebacker for the San Diego Chargers; Ryan Mallett, backup quarterback for the New England Patriots. Michael Sam will add his name to this list when he is drafted into the NFL this coming May.
There are traditionally three kinds of linebackers: Two of them are called the Mike and the Sam. Sam linebackers, or strong side linebackers, typically used in a defensive scheme called a 4-3, are versatile players that defend against the run and pass. The Mike linebacker is the focal point of any solid run defense whose characteristics are defined by Jobe Lewis of about.com as, “epitomiz[ing] the football player persona, because he’s big, strong and hard-nosed. He is a key vocal leader in most schemes, calling out formations and strengths.”
Although a defensive end in college, Michael Sam, the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, embodies those qualities, the qualities of any great football player. Sam was one of the best college football players in the nation last season. He lead the Missouri Tigers to an SEC Title berth and a major bowl win. Why is the best defensive player in the best conference in college football currently projected as a third or fourth-round draft pick whose stock is predicted to fall even further?
Michael Sam is gay. He came out last week, and when he gets drafted he will be the first openly gay player in the history of the NFL. Although Michael Sam is not the first gay player in the NFL, he is the first to come out, as Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders tweeted Sam’s revelation. This is unprecedented stuff. Reactions within the NFL have been mixed, though.
There has been a great show of public support for Sam from current and retired NFL players and officials and his alma mater the University of Missouri via media outlets like Twitter.
There was also a Sports Illustrated article that underscored certain GM’s notion that Sam and his sexual orientation will be a distraction and lead to unwanted controversy for NFL franchises, and a recent ESPN poll that showed how many NFLers are uncomfortable with the idea of a gay teammate. Some say Sam’s size has hurt his draft position. Some say coming out was what has done it.
The NFL, although outwardly admiring them, doesn’t often respond well to mold-breakers internally. A good example would be the vociferously pro-gay marriage punter Chris Kluwe. After pinning several letters and a well-known article for the popular sports blog Deadspin, Kluwe found himself cut from the Minnesota Vikings and without any job offers. Kluwe has since attributed his lack of work to the stance he took on gay marriage and the label of “being a distraction” that is so popular amongst NFL management. Players who speak out against the NFL or on hot political issues, players that deviate from the norm, are frowned upon.
It is impossible to compare Sam and his decision to any current or former NFL player, but Sam is not the first professional football player to be different, to bend the stereotype of the football player. Myron Rolle played safety and was an academic and football standout at the Florida State University. More notably, Rolle accepted a Rhodes Scholarship instead of playing his last year of collegiate football.
Rolle was widely considered a prototypical NFL safety and was projected to be a first-round draft pick. Pursuing his studies made the NFL question Rolle’s commitment to football, his love for the game. He ended up being drafted in the penultimate sixth round of the draft in 2010. He retired in 2012, having not played a single down in a regular season game. In a profile published by SB Nation, Rolle said coaches and players treated him differently for being smart, for having dedicated himself to something besides football. He goes as far as to speculate that he wasn’t given a fair shot in the league because of his “non-traditional” interests for a football player.
This is not to say being discriminated against for being gay is at all similar to being shunned by the NFL for being “too smart.” But the NFL isn’t as pure a meritocracy as we’d like to believe. There are political structures in place within the league to keep those that deviate from the football-player norm from succeeding.
The NFL is not a progressive institution, and the unfortunate reality is that like Rolle, Sam will be treated differently. There is no reason to believe otherwise. The poisonous, homophobic, hyper-macho nature of NFL locker rooms has been on full display this year because of the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal. Fans will yell terrible things from the stands. Several players like Jonathan Vilma have already expressed concerns about having to do things like shower with a gay teammate. It will not be an easy transition into the NFL for Sam.
There is a danger that Michael Sam will get his chance and not succeed, and that certain circles will think he couldn’t play football because he is gay. There is a greater danger that the NFL won’t give Sam the chance he has proved he deserves because the primitive, follow-the-leader, don’t-ask-questions mindset of the league would suffer if Michael Sam does well.
The kiss-of-death “distraction” label is being attached to Sam. He will bring unwanted controversy an unnamed NFL GM has said. The odds are stacked against Sam. His struggle will be Sisyphean, and progress and change will be incremental within a rigid institution like the NFL. But at least someone is trying to push the boulder up the hill. Hopefully more will join him.