Michael Sam and the Draw That Changed American Sports Forever

7.9.2014

By Christopher Glazek

He was the 249th NFL draft pick — that changed everything.

Sam came out to the Missouri Tigers during their minicamp in August 2013, kicking off a winning season in which the team finished 12 and 2 and Sam claimed 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles. “When I got up there in front of my team, it was actually the first time I said the words to anyone: ‘I am gay.’ ” Although he was nervous, his teammates were supportive. “Mizzou is a family,” Sam told me. “At another school, it might have been a different story.”

Just as we were getting to the good stuff, a pert, well-groomed woman came to our table. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said. “I’m from Visa. I need to take Michael now for the recording.” I didn’t realize it would be the last time Sam and I would speak.

Four days after what was supposed to be the first of several interviews with Out, Michael Sam was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. Seconds after the announcement, ESPN filmed him celebrating the moment with a passionate kiss that has since been viewed millions of times around the world. Three days later, he gave a joint press conference with Rams coach Jeff Fisher stating that his focus moving forward would be exclusively on football. The next day, the Oprah Winfrey Network announced it was filming a series about Sam, directed by Amy Rice, which blindsided the Rams and caused the sports world to erupt with criticism. Two days after that, OWN announced the series was being put on hold, and Sam went into a media freeze in order to focus on making the Rams’ 53-man roster. On June 12, Sam made the team, signing a 4-year contract worth more than two and a half million dollars.

Over the past four months, as Sam’s fortunes have swung from the giddiest highs to the most deflating lows, he has been freighted with inordinate expectations from all quarters. To satisfy his skeptics, he has had to clear an ever-expanding set of personal and professional hurdles: In effect, he has had to walk prouder, play harder, earn less, and allow himself to be fumbled around as the media’s football in a way unknown to the vast majority of his comparatively anonymous peers.

Sam’s supporters have been nearly as unreasonable. Despite the achievements of figures like Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers, there is still a yearning among LGBT Americans for an elite gay athlete who will establish once and for all that gays can play the most masculine sports and win at the highest level. Making the Rams’ roster is only the first task for Sam, and many are sure to be disappointed if he ends up falling short on any number of subsequent tests. Assuming he makes the team, will Sam actually play? If he gets to play, will he be used only in special situations, as a third-down pass rusher? Will he ever become a starter? Does he have it in him to make the Football Hall of Fame? Many believe that Sam’s draft position was lower than it should have been, either because of hostility toward homosexuals or toward the “distractions” that inevitably result when the league’s coaches, who are notoriously risk-averse, sign celebrity players. With Sam, in particular, some teams may have feared that once he was drafted, he would be difficult to cut. Each side can marshal statistics and historical analogies showing that Sam’s draft was either artificially low or right on target. Sam’s side of the argument is compelling, though the conclusion that Sam deserved to be drafted in an earlier round probably imputes a higher degree of quantitative rigor to the draft than is actually justified.

SLIDESHOW | MICHAEL SAM PHOTOS FOR OUT

The debate over whether Sam is actually a superior talent is somewhat absurd, but it merits our consideration if only to elicit sympathy for a young man whose journey is just beginning. And it may never really be over. Millions of people around the world have pinned their hopes on Sam because they want to believe he will prove that gays aren't sissies—that through his perseverance and talent, he will somehow extinguish homophobia. It's a foolhardy wish. For prejudicial temperaments impervious to fact, Sam's accomplishments may never be enough.

We should let him have his future, as storied or as obscure as it turns out to be, and instead celebrate him for the achievements he's already banked.

 

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Tags: Sports
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