When it comes to diversity in sports, the American psyche is trained to visualize the image of Jackie Robinson in a Brooklyn Dodgers jersey, wearing his famous No. 42—a number that is now an icon in sports and American culture.
At this point, you're not a true American if you are unfamiliar with the story of Robinson tearing down the racial barriers in baseball by joining the Dodgers in the 1940s, despite an onslaught of criticism, racial slurs and headhunting pitchers.
However, Robinson was not the first African-American to make history by joining a professional sports team. He was beat to the punch. And sadly, it's a lesser-known story that the NFL has inexplicably refused to acknowledge on any meaningful level.
One year before Robinson's 1947 debut with the Dodgers, the Los Angeles Rams signed defensive back and running back Kenny Washington out of UCLA, officially breaking the color barrier for NFL football.
Yet, if you ask around the streets of America, very few recognize Washington's name. There's no shrine to Washington in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and there's certainly no holiday during the NFL season that requires players to wear Washington's No. 13 in his honor.
The question is, why not?
For one, unlike Washington, Robinson was a productive player for the Dodgers. He ended his career with less than 200 home runs and less than 2,000 hits, but he maintained a .311 batting average throughout his career, while winning Rookie of the Year in 1947 and Most Valuable Player in 1949. He also helped Brooklyn secure its first-ever World Series championship over the rival New York Yankees in 1955.
Washington's on-the-field accomplishments pale in comparison. He played just three seasons in the NFL, and his best season as a rusher ended in a modest 444 yards on the ground. The Rams failed to make the playoffs even once throughout Washington's tenure with the team.
Evidently, history favored the winner. As a result, Robinson became the face of the new era—an era of racial equality and equal opportunity.
If history unfolded another way, if Robinson struggled to produce and Washington put together a phenomenal career, perhaps it would be a different story today. Perhaps, last summer's big sports movie would have been titled 13 rather than 42.
And it's an important lesson to remember—regardless of the barriers that are being torn down, play on the field matters.
Rams Breaking Barriers Once Again...In the 21st Century
The 2014 NFL draft progressed through six complete rounds with no mention of the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
As the draft entered the seventh round—the final round of the draft—the NFL was coming dangerously close to a national embarrassment, certainly too close for comfort.
Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers, the aforementioned Co-Defensive Player of the Year, made a public announcement last February that he's gay—making him the very first openly gay draft prospect in NFL history.
As the draft progressed through the seventh round, it appeared that Sam was in danger of going undrafted. Considering Sam was perhaps the most productive defensive player in the SEC last season—the best conference in college football—it's obvious that Sam's late-round availability went beyond his abilities as a football player.
Before the NFL was smacked with the PR disaster of Sam going undrafted, the St. Louis Rams stepped in to save the day.
With the 34th pick in the seventh round, after 248 players were already selected, the Rams announced their selection, and it was Sam.
You can exhale now, Mr. Roger Goodell.
The Rams were not exactly front-runners in the Sam sweepstakes, as Sam is a tweener and not the most ideal fit for their defensive scheme, but if you examine the evidence, the Rams were the best fit all along.
In fact, shortly after Sam's announcement, Rams head coach Jeff Fisher offered vocal support and told Rams beat writer Jim Thomas that the Rams would have no problem adding Sam.
On another topic, Fisher and LB James Laurinaitis both say they'd have no problem with Michael Sam on the Rams. Story to come on that.— Jim Thomas (@jthom1) February 13, 2014
At the time, no one took the comments as anything other than lip service. It was simply an example of Fisher being the classy guy he is by merely offering a few words of encouragement. No one thought the comments were a forecast of the team's draft-day plans.
After Sam's name was announced, it was clear the comments were more than just moral support. Fisher truly meant what he said. And that's a lucky break for Sam, because there's really not a single franchise that can support him better than the Rams.
A solid portion of Rams fans double as fans of the Missouri Tigers. The fans in St. Louis spent four years following Sam's collegiate career. They're familiar with Sam as a player and as a person, and that's a huge advantage. Sam will perform for fans who would love nothing more than to see him succeed.
Another factor working in Sam's favor is the environmental factor. He spent the last four years of his life in Columbia, Missouri, and the town has been a safe haven. Now, his relocation is a mere two hours east on I-70.
It even goes beyond geographical comfort. Fisher is entering his 20th season as a head coach in the NFL, so thanks to his experience, he's more than capable of handling whatever challenges may service. In fact, in his TV interview with the NFL Network during the draft, Fisher made it clear that the Rams are more than ready.
"Yeah, there's going to be some extra attention for a couple of days, but Michael's a Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year, you know. That's important to us," said Fisher.
"We have a young team, a very mature team. We're not not going to let any kind of distractions affect this football team."
It's clear that Fisher is, in fact, speaking for the team, as the Rams players have offered enormous support.
Bingo RT @AtkinsNate: How will Rams' locker room embrace Michael Sam? Same way TJ Moe, EJ Gaines and Tim Barnes helped make happen at Mizzou— T.J. Moe (@TJMoe28) May 10, 2014
Clearly, the Rams are ready to embrace Sam as one of their own. The environment he's entering is ideal, and the opportunity to make history is there for the taking.
However, it's not enough. Sam's play on the field must speak for itself before he can truly find a place in the history books.
As Kenny Washington and the Rams discovered over 60 years ago, history only writes stories for the winners.
The opportunity is there, and the rest is simply up to Sam.
Steven Gerwel is the longest-tenured Rams Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report and serves as the Rams' game-day correspondent. You can find more of Gerwel's work by visiting his writer profile or by following him on Twitter.
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