Michael Sam will be the first openly gay player in the NFL. The SEC Defensive Player of the Year and first-team all-SEC pick came out in an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Sunday, and there’s been a whirlwind of response around the league, both positive and negative.
Before the announcement, Sam was considered a mid-round pick. However, since the announcement, Sam has seen his draft stock rapidly fall—CBS dropped him 70 spots overnight, per Ryan Glasspiegel of The Big Lead, before bouncing him back the next day.
Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated quoted anonymous front office officials saying that this would significantly hurt his draft position. One claimed that drafting Sam would “chemically unbalance an NFL locker room,” adding that the NFL might be ready “in the coming decade or two.” Another questioned whether or not a team would want to be the first to “break that barrier,” with the entire accompanying media circus.
The San Francisco 49ers, however, are not one of those anonymous clubs.
General manager Trent Baalke released a statement via the team twitter account, essentially stating that the 49ers will treat Sam like any other draft prospect:
"The 49ers commend Michael for the courage he has displayed as he continues to pursue his NFL career. We have and will continue to evaluate him as we do every eligible player, which is always based on their projected contribution to our team on and off the field."
This is precisely the standard teams should hold Sam to, and precisely the standard that is fair to not only Sam, but any other LGBT player, open or not. His sexual orientation plays absolutely no part in his ability to perform on the football field.
If a team believes Sam can be an effective player on the field but passes on him for his sexual orientation, they’re harming their team. Sexual orientation, skin color, religion—none of this matters when determining whether or not a player can play their position.
The concerns about locker room chemistry deserve more of a response, however. It’s a fairly commonly expressed opinion that an openly gay player would disrupt a team—perhaps straight players would be afraid to shower with a gay player, or would feel that, somehow, his homosexuality would dilute the toughness of the squad.
First of all, Michael Sam was such a locker-room cancer in college that Missouri made the SEC Championship Game. His teammates knew he was gay and have almost universally come out in support of Sam. Are we to believe a bunch of college students are going to be more professional than, well, professionals? If so, the problem is less with the gay player than with the players unable to deal with the issue as well as the players on the Missouri team did.
Secondly, Sam will not be the first gay player in the NFL, merely the first publicly open one. The list of gay players that we know about includes the 49ers’ own Kwame Harris and David Kopay. The list of gay players who we don’t know about is, in all likelihood, much longer. The NFL hasn’t collapsed due to their existence. The Washington Redskins of the 1960s didn’t implode because Jerry Smith was making Pro Bowl teams.
Of course, these players weren’t publicly open during their playing careers. It’s true that Sam will face a barrage of media interest in him, and that could be a distraction for a team. That’s a bit more of an understandable concern than the worries of simply existing as a gay player.
However, by coming out now, Sam’s getting the initial barrage of interest directed at him, and him alone. At the NFL Combine this month, Sam is sure to generate a media circus, as reporters all try to get quotes and reactions about his trailblazing status. However, that initial burst will die down over time—there’s only so many questions one can ask.
As Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy noted on twitter, there aren’t exactly a plethora of questions one can ask about having a gay teammate. It will be a distraction during training camp and the preseason, but once Week 1 kicks off, the focus will be squarely on the field, where it belongs.
Will the added attention hurt the team’s concentration? Perhaps, but that’s not exclusively an issue with a gay player. The 49ers have experience dealing with a defensive player from Missouri causing a media circus during the season, with Aldon Smith’s DUI arrest and subsequent rehab stay. Is a player simply being gay going to cause more of a problem than that? Color me skeptical.
While no player or coach has been quoted about Sam’s situation yet, a 2012 interview with the The Chronicle quoted coach Jim Harbaugh as saying that his expectations of a gay player would be exactly the same as that of a straight player. Joe Staley, Tarell Brown, Alex Boone and Donte Whitner, amongst others, all said that a player would be accepted.
The 49ers are unlikely to draft Sam not because of his sexual orientation, but because of his defensive shortcomings. At only 6’2” and 255 lbs, Sam is small for a defensive end. He also hasn’t had extensive experience dropping back into coverage, making a potential conversion to outside linebacker more of a projection.
If the 49ers do take Sam, it would most likely be a value pick on the third day of the draft—if Sam’s stock does fall because of his announcement, the 49ers or another crafty team could take a player like him at a discount. After all, he did put up a ton of numbers in college, and some players—like 5'11" Elvis Dumervil—have had success despite non-traditional body size.
On a personal note, I’ll be rooting for Sam to have success wherever he ends up—and he will end up somewhere. He has produced too much in college to go entirely undrafted. And while some teams may take him off their draft boards, it only takes one open-minded team to take him. Unless someone else comes out in the next few months, Sam will be the first openly gay player in the NFL, and I hope he makes an impact in the league for a long time, both on and off the field.