Michael Sam Is Drafted By the NFL

Posted on May 12, 2014 at 8:20 PM

By Dennis Stone

Another milestone was reached on Saturday when Michael Sam was selected by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the National Football League draft. He therefore becomes the first openly gay professional football player (American football, that is). The NFL is one of the most notoriously super-macho bastions of "traditional" masculinity in the world, and Michael Sam is smashing a significant barrier. There have been other gay NFL players through the years, and a few have come out after their careers ended (including Esera Tuaolo from my hometown Minnesota Vikings). But no one has dared to face the historical homophobia that has permeated football locker rooms until Michael Sam came along.

The drafting of Michael Sam is revolutionary, but it was the reaction to his drafting and to the kiss he shared with his boyfriend on live national television that is the really good news, and that tells us how far we've come as a society.

Leading up to the draft there was real concern as to whether he would be drafted. There were two reasons for that concern. One was whether teams would shy away from the "distractions" and media scrutiny that would attend the first gay NFL player. At its core the NFL is remarkably conservative in multiple ways, run by people who abhor controversy and anything that distracts from a single-minded focus on football. I'm sure there is some actual homophobia, but in my opinion that is very much secondary to the distaste for distraction from the "prime directive" of winning games.

There was and is a second problem with Sam's hopes for being drafted and for having success in the league. His body and his game are simply not suited for the NFL. He was a star in college at Missouri, and last year was named as the Co-Defensive Player Of the Year in the Southeast Conference. But he is too small to play defensive end in the NFL, where every player was a college star, and he is too slow to play linebacker. He's what the scouts call a "tweener," the type of player who rarely succeeds in the NFL. As a league executive said, "It's a tough fit when you're short and slow and a try-hard overachiever. That's the issue."  To buttress those concerns, Sam did poorly at the Combine athletic tests, ranking near the bottom for players at his position.

My personal guess is that he would have been drafted earlier had he not come out, but not dramatically earlier. His limitations are real. But he did get drafted, and that is much more important than exactly where he was drafted. And so he will go to training camp as the first professional NFL player. Now it's up to him to perform well enough to make the team and smash another barrier by being the first out gay player to play in a regular season game.

I have been fascinated by the reaction to Michael Sam being drafted. I don't think we in the gay community are adequately appreciating that reaction. I have heard literally NO negative reaction from any quarter of the media. EVERYONE is supportive. To say anything even remotely negative about Sam or gay athletes in general is utterly unacceptable. I have heard a large number of discussions about Sam on multiple media outlets. These sports announcers, many of whom played college or professional athletics, talk about Sam in a way that just takes it for granted that Sam should be supported. Think back ten years, and imagine what the reaction would have been in the sports world and in society in general. 

ESPN aired live video from an NFL draft party attended by Sam and his boyfriend Vito Cammisano, and when Sam was drafted he and Vito shared an emotional kiss. ESPN did not shy away at all, as other media outlets have often been accused of doing when two men kiss. Photos of the kiss have been published everywhere. While even the broadcast kiss was supported by almost all media sources, some in the rest of the sports world had issues with it. Former player Derrick Ward tweeted this: "I'm sorry but that Michael Sam is no bueno for doing that on national tv. Man U got little kids lookin at the draft. I can't believe ESPN even allowed that to happen." Current Miami Dolphins player Don Jones tweeted his disapproval, calling the kiss "horrible."

But here's where it gets interesting. The Miami Dolphins made it clear that they would not accept intolerance from their players. They immediately fined Jones, prohibited him from attending team activities, and mandated a course of sensitivity training. Jones deleted his tweets and issued what sounded like a genuine apology. Said his team:  "We met with Don today about respect, discrimination and judgment. These comments are not consistent with the values and standards of our program."

As I said before, think back to where we were a few years ago. The gay issue was highly contentious in sports and in society in general. Today a football player gets fined and suspended for expressing personal disapproval of a televised gay kiss. (And gay people are getting married in Arkansas!  That's right, Arkansas!) There is way too little celebrating going on in the gay community these days. Yes, there is still a long way to go. We can't even get ENDA passed, for goodness sake. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate the wonderful things that are happening. That doesn't mean we can't recognize that gay equality is coming, and coming sooner than we could have dreamed a few years ago. That doesn't mean it's wrong to see the good things that are happening as outweighing the hurdles that still need to be overcome.  

Now we need to take the next step in the athletic world. We need to get to where Michael Sam is just a football player, not "the gay football player." We need to get to where an athlete coming out is not a national story. It's possible we'll never get to the point where being gay in public life isn't some kind of news. After all, being gay will always be very different from the "norm," it will always set one apart from the majority of his or her contemporaries. And since sex and relationships are perhaps the most important part of life, having that difference will always be "news" on some level. But we need to get to where that news is a ho-hum sort of thing, and where being gay is a minor part of one's public perception. Michael Sam's coming out, his drafting, and his professional career is an important step in that direction.

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Reply Hue-Man
10:51 PM on May 20, 2014 
I understand your point about "lake of fire" and national politicians. I had Mike Huckabee in mind when I posted the comment. " If that?s the not-so-subtle dog whistle Huckabee hopes to send to supporters as he contemplates his next presidential run, so be it. But by borrowing tactics and vocabulary from one of the most noxiously bigoted movements in modern American history, Huckabee is essentially admitting that his objection to Judge Piazza?s ruling has more to do with his own anti-gay animus than with some abstract devotion to ?the people?s will.?"

i guess it's progress for Huckabee to move from gay concentration camps to anti-gay dog-whistles. If he does run again, expect a lot of deaf dogs!
Reply Dennis Stone
10:27 PM on May 17, 2014 
Hi Hue-Man. It's good to see a post from you again! To address your main point, the main thing to remember is that NATIONAL politicians CAN'T get away with anti-LGBT rhetoric. Even Rick Santorum said some utterly remarkable things when asked how he'd react if his son told him he was gay. He basically said he'd love him every bit as much. Where you still have anti-gay rhetoric is in more local areas, where the citizenry is very conservative. Texas, for example. Or deep southern states. Or small jurisdictions like congressional representatives. Michele Bachmann, for example, who is from an area just north of me. That's a very conservative area. But even there, she backed off most of the overtly anti-gay stuff. Voters there are more interested in small government, low tax positions. That's why they vote for her, not because of the anti-gay stuff. What we have to remember is that many of us tend to be one issue voters, while most voters are not. Michele Bachmann gets a lot of votes from people who don't agree with her anti-gay views, but who REALLY like her small government views. If any national politician started talking about gays and "lakes of fire" he'd screw himself.

Hue-Man says...
Maybe the different attitudes about the role of government mean that U.S. voters will never punish haters and racists. Perhaps media needs to stop being deferential to them and challenge their extremism that has nothing to do with good government. Hating gays is increasingly bad for business - Eich and Brunei. Can it be made to be bad for politicians, too?
Reply Hue-Man
2:51 PM on May 17, 2014 
" I have heard literally NO negative reaction from any quarter of the media. EVERYONE is supportive."
I hope he does well, otherwise the RW Schadenfreude will be unbearable.
The most recent anti-gay sports media story was the 2011 firing of TSN broadcaster Damian Goddard. The 2012 election in Alberta (-Texas North) extended this no-hate response to the Canadian political sphere. The far-right Wildrose Party was supposed to win but lost to the center-right Progressive Conservatives following anti-gay and racist comments by Wildrose candidates. From the National Post's post-mortem:

"Prof. Ellis said the Wildrose Party was doomed the moment it tread into social conservatism without assuring voters it had limits. [Wildrose leader] Ms. Smith chose not to draw a ?clear line in the sand? and instead espoused free speech and freedom of religion, refusing to condemn candidates for making bigoted and racially charged comments: One pastor wrote in his blog that gays would burn in a "lake of fire," while another MLA-hopeful said he had an advantage as a white candidate in an ethnically diverse Calgary constituency."

Money quote from a conservative pundit: ""Once you get started talking about [morally divisive issues], you're just one set of loose-lips away from a disaster like "lake of fire,"" said Geoff Norquay, a public policy and communications specialist with Earnscliffe Strategy Group. "Once you start linking lakes of fire with public policy, you're lost. Gone. It's over. I can't look into the future, but I think parties would be well-advised to stay away from those issues.""

I don't know how this kind of result can be engineered in the U.S. where politicians at all levels say outrageous things about LGBT people and about racial minorities. Maybe the different attitudes about the role of government mean that U.S. voters will never punish haters and racists. Perhaps media needs to stop being deferential to them and challenge their extremism that has nothing to do with good government. Hating gays is increasingly bad for business - Eich and Brunei. Can it be made to be bad for politicians, too?