Sam is a pioneer, the first openly gay player the NFL has ever had, but now, as camp begins, his task is more complicated than being a symbol of progress. He must make an NFL team as a seventh-round draft pick.
It's not impossible for a seventh-rounder to make it; it does happen. Yet when speaking to people around the league, there is a feeling that Sam likely will not make the team. One general manager put his chances at 50 percent. Another at 30 percent. One AFC assistant coach said Sam would only make it if a number of Rams defenders at his position were injured.
They do not think he possesses the athleticism or speed to make an NFL roster. To them, it's that simple.
This is something I do not believe. I believe Sam has something in him that cannot be calculated or measured or sifted. My belief is that Sam will stun the league and prove, as many other players have done, that some men are more than their combine numbers.
It will not be easy for Sam. Those same team executives believe that Sam—despite his jersey selling like hotcakes, despite what has been mass general acceptance spiced with bigotry (instead of the other way around)—will face hardships in the locker room and beyond.
This belief is typified by some remarkably ignorant and stunningly shortsighted comments by Tony Dungy, a former coach and a man some believe is one of the league's great ambassadors. Unfortunately, Dungy isn't alone, but he is supposed to know better. He's supposed to be a leader, a man of principle, a man who knows the sting of bigotry. Quite simply, he's supposed to understand.
When asked if he would have drafted Sam, Dungy explained, via The Tampa Tribune:
I wouldn't have taken him. Not because I don't believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn't want to deal with all of it.
It's not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.
This isn't the first time Dungy has made controversial comments when it comes to gays. But this, I mean, um…a black man is saying a minority wouldn't be worth the distraction. A freaking black man is saying this!
Dungy backtracked, er, expounded on his comments on Tuesday afternoon. "What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams," he explained. "I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization. I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction."
Dungy was the first black coach to win a Super Bowl and has faced unbelievable bigotry throughout his many decades in football as a player and coach. He once received horrid racist hate mail regarding his son.
Dungy should know better, but he is clearly a good man with a weak spot. Imagine if an NFL team, when Dungy came into football, decided not to draft him because they wouldn't want to "deal with all of it" by picking a black man. Or if Dungy's hero, Chuck Noll, instead of hiring Dungy as an assistant coach, decided, "You know what, the attention will be negative. I don't want to deal with all of it."
When Dungy was trying to be a head coach, he was rebuffed in many instances because of the color of his skin. Or other superficial features. The late George Young, who was the general manager of the Giants, once told Dungy (as told in Michael MacCambridge's book America's Game): "I want to help you. I want to see you succeed in this business, and I think you can. But you'll never advance any farther with that beard. It's just not seen in the NFL."
When Dungy told Steelers owner Dan Rooney about Young's words, Rooney said: "In some organizations, that's probably true. But we like people to be themselves."
We like people to be themselves.
Those are the words of another Dungy hero. What is being more true to one's self than not hiding who you truly are, as Sam no longer needs to do?
Dungy's words are also remarkable when you consider that he was Michael Vick's biggest supporter upon Vick's release from federal prison. I mean, goodness, you can't make this stuff up. Sam is a distraction because he's gay, but a guy who ran a dogfighting enterprise is not?
I actually agree with Dungy in one respect. I'm the lone pessimist, it seems, in that during this training camp, and beyond, Sam will face some ugly circumstances in the locker room and outside of it. But this isn't a reason to not draft Sam. You don't operate from a position of fear. If that were the case, there would have never been a Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.
We will see several surprises this training camp regarding Sam. I believe one of them will be that Sam will play far better than some across football are predicting.
In some ways, Sam will be a beacon.
The opposite of Dungy.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.