Michael Sam's Draft Status Holds Cultural Importance Despite Decreased Attention

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistMay 5, 2014

Feb 22, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Missouri Tigers defensive end Michael Sam speaks to the media in a press conference during the 2014 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In a strange way, Michael Sam got exactly what he wanted.

Standing at the podium at the NFL combine as the epicenter of the football universe, Sam, the former Missouri defensive end and consensus All-American who also happens to be the first openly gay NFL draft prospect in history, told reporters he did not want to be assessed solely on his sexuality. Judge him as the football player, he said, not as the cultural symbol he'd come to embody.

"Well, heck yeah, I just wish you would just say, 'Hey, Michael Sam, how's football going?' I would love to give the answer to that question," Sam said. "But it is what it is. I just wish you guys will see me as Michael Sam the football player, instead of as Michael Sam the gay football player."

On the eve of Roger Goodell traipsing his way to the podium at Radio City Music Hall, Sam's wish has seemingly come true. Or at least as close to it as he's ever going to get.

For all of the hand-wringing that Sam's announcement would be a "distraction," perhaps the most dreaded buzzword in NFL folklore, it has decidedly not. The initial attention was all-encompassing and consistently present, but the NFL draft has remained the NFL draft. 

As the buzz surrounding Sam quieted, attention began shifting toward other top prospects. To Teddy Bridgewater's rapidly descending stock. To where Johnny Manziel will wind up. To whom the Houston Texans will be taking with the No. 1 overall pick Thursday night. The draft that was supposed to represent a cultural hallmark has, in large part, become just another draft, with the same wild speculation about trades and website traffic statistics goosed by mock drafts.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Sam has become another football player in the 256-man assembly line who expects to hear his name called this weekend. Scouts have gone from rummaging through his personal life for character flaws—they found none—and begun assessing the player who came out of nowhere to record 11.5 sacks as a senior. They've taken a look at his 6'2", 261-pound frame and 4.91-second speed and made their decision about whether he's a linebacker, defensive end or off their draft board entirely.

Expected to be a mid-round draft pick out of Missouri, it's no guarantee Sam hears his name called at all. Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel spoke to 21 NFL team scouts recently about Sam, less than half of whom said they would draft him at this point. A third of those team employees indicated they would not even advise their franchise to bring him on as an undrafted free agent. 

Michael Sam Combine Performance
HeightWeightArm lengthHand size40-yard dashBench pressVertical JumpBroad Jump3-Cone20-Yard Shuttle
6'2"261 lbs33 3/8"9 3/8"4.91 seconds1725 1/2"114"7.80 seconds4.7 seconds

"He's not a linebacker, and he's really not a defensive end," an NFC personnel director told McGinn. "I'd certainly take him to camp. You've got to admire how hard he plays."

"Most of his production was hustle stuff," said another NFC scout. "There's production, but he's short, he's not a really good athlete and he doesn't play good against the run. He's kind of a one-task pass-rusher. Just run up the field. And they swallow him up and kind of push him around."

These quotes are at once heartening and entirely dispiriting.

Tim Sharp/Associated Press

Here is Sam being spoken of as he wanted to be—as a football player. There are no coded words like "distraction" or "increased attention" being bandied about. Only legitimate concerns about a player whose unrelenting motor, aggression and heart won him the SEC Defensive Player of the Year Award but makes him no guarantee to have the same success against NFL behemoths. 

That's all fair. No one, the least of which Sam himself, wants him being taken as a token. Sam asked to be judged based on who he is as a football player, and if certain team executives don't think he has a spot on their roster, then they shouldn't waste the pick.

But if 256 names get called from Thursday through Saturday and Sam is not one—remember, roughly half the executives McGinn talked to said they would draft Sam as high as the fifth round—the NFL will have missed out on a potential culture-changing moment.

Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

The ripple effects of Sam, Brooklyn Nets center Jason Collins and others are already being felt nationwide. Last month, Massachusetts basketball player Derrick Gordon became the first openly gay Division I basketball player. Gordon consulted with Collins prior to his announcement, and the two maintain a close relationship. Sam also made it a point to reach out and lend his support. 

"We're so happy for him," Sam's representatives told TMZ. "This is going to happen more and more because it's now accepted by society."

As it should. The Derrick Gordons of the world should never have felt shame about their sexual orientation to begin with, but the presence of people like Sam and Collins weathering the storm first makes it easier. Every time they cut to Collins sitting on the bench at a Nets playoff game, a little piece of the remaining stigma of an LGBT man or woman integrating himself or herself in "locker room culture" goes away.

To ignore that and discuss Sam only as a football player does a disservice to this inspiration he's provided to Gordon and countless others. There is still not an openly gay Division I football player, nor Major League Baseball player, nor professional hockey player. The progress is understandably slow, and Sam hearing his name called—whether fair or not—will be instructive to some on how the NFL views homosexuality.

John Raoux/Associated Press

Commissioner Goodell, who has a gay brother, knows this. The league has gone out of its way to emphasize publicly and privately that discrimination will not be tolerated. Senior vice president of player engagement Troy Vincent's assertion that he played with six gay teammates throughout his career and Goodell's own discussion of how the league will ensure the "best possible professional environment" are no accident. 

The league knows that while the spotlight is dim now, it's going to brighten Saturday. The first two days of the draft will probably go by with only scant mentions of Sam. Manziel, Bridgewater, Jadeveon Clowney—the same guys we thought we'd be discussing before Sam's historic announcement—will take center stage. Inherent normalcy will continue washing over the proceedings as Day 1 bleeds into Day 2, each filled with the typical April narratives, only pushed back a couple of weeks.

Come Day 3, when many expect Sam to be drafted, that narrative shifts. When the big names are gone and talking points have been exhausted over hours and hours of coverage, Sam will be there, alone again, like he was at that combine podium.

The same questions about culture and homosexuality and acceptance will be posited as they were in February. Analysts will invoke the names of Collins, Gordon and maybe even former NFL defensive back Wade Davis, who came out as gay after his playing career and has become a preeminent voice in discussing the dichotomy between locker room culture and sexual orientation.

But when Michael Sam's name gets called—and, make no mistake, it will—it will be as a football player. A team will see the tweener and take a chance on his heart, motor and collegiate production, hoping they can turn him into a situational pass-rusher. NFL coaches won't be taking Sam as a cultural stepping stone. Their jobs are too finite and their draft picks are far too valuable for that.

Let's just not for a second downplay Sam's effect.

He got his own wish to be judged by scouts as only a football player. But thanks to his bravery, honesty and openness these last few months, other young athletes will eventually get their wish of playing the sport they love without fear of discrimination or hate because of their sexual orientation. 

That's far more important than whether Sam can beat Russell Okung off the edge.

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