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Michael Sam Not Being Signed: On the Media, Excuse-Making and Homophobia

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Michael Sam Not Being Signed: On the Media, Excuse-Making and Homophobia
Jeff Roberson/AP Images

First, let's get this out of the way: When it comes to the Michael Sam story, well, we in the media partially screwed up. 

It is true that we turned Sam into a nonstop melodrama. The story was unprecedented and historic and deserved a massive amount of attention, but some in the media took it too far.

It's all too easy to blame ESPN, but the larger truth is that the Sam story was a collision of storm fronts. Many in the media had a sincere desire to see progress in one of the last bastions of homophobia: professional sports. That factor, partnered with the massive, coagulating, blob-ified social media, led to Sam becoming a spectacle. This was no fault of Sam's. This was on us.

This was also partly a sign of modern-day America. This story was bound to leapfrog sports and land on Maddow and Meet the Press. That intensified the overcoverage, the way heat creates a larger hurricane.

So the media deserves part of the blame for Sam not playing in the NFL now. We made him a marked man. We Tebow-ed him. Each time Sam went to the field, there was a media marching band in pursuit.

But let's also make this clear: Sam not being signed with a team isn't solely because of the media. Or even mostly. Him not being signed is because of fear, shameful excuse-making and old-fashioned bigotry.

It can't be stressed enough how Sam not being signed despite a productive preseason is almost unprecedented. In my two decades of covering the NFL, it isn't just rare; it's basically unheard of for a player to not make the league after playing well in the preseason. A player who produces like Sam did almost always makes it on some roster in the league, either on a practice squad or a 53-man roster.

Sam not making it is like seeing Bigfoot on the hood of a UFO.

In interviews with a number of team officials, I can't find one who will actually say to me, "He can't play." They all point to the media and say he's too big a distraction.

One general manager told me, "Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention."

It's entirely possible that Sam does sign in the NFL. It's also entirely possible a team is keeping its desire to sign him secret until a later time. We could all be shocked. But for the moment, when I ask teams if they would consider signing Sam, not only am I getting "no," I'm getting "hell no." Again, the potential media circus is cited as the reason.

ESPN's Adam Schefter underlined the NFL's Sam problem with this tweet:

You can say Sam didn't get one of those sacks since he basically fell on a dude, but that would be partially dishonest. He created his own luck by hustling. He did in the preseason what he did his entire college career. The preseason was simply Sam being Sam.

I know what the anti-Sam types will say: that he played well because he was going against dudes who will be installing your DirecTV in a few weeks. Yet that always happens with late-round picks. They almost always go against backups and guys who won't make it. Most of the time, however, with every team I've ever been around, guys who play well like Sam get opportunities...somewhere in the NFL.

So why isn't he on a roster?

It's cowardice. If you are an NFL team and you fear the media, you shouldn't be in the NFL. Try Arena.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

The Jets knew when they signed Tim Tebow that there would be a Sharknado-like circus full of clowns and elephants, yet they still signed him. Sure, Tebow had success in Denver, but almost everyone in football thought he was terrible (and he proved to be)—yet he was still signed.

A circus, or a threat of one, has never stopped an entire league from signing a qualified player. NFL teams have also signed woman-beaters, drug addicts and players who killed people while driving drunk. Michael Vick was a convicted felon whose criminal enterprise included electrocuting the testicles of dogs, yet the Eagles somehow were not circus-phobic.

There is no way to get around it: Sam isn't signed because teams fear his being gay. They don't really care about the circus. The media, having perhaps overpublicized the story, serves a gorgeous scapegoat. 

While we're at it, let me respond to some of the sillier things I see on Twitter about Sam:

1. Why so much attention to a seventh-round pick?

Because there has never been anyone like him. Sam was unique, and the media loves unique. Maybe we did go too far, but what's also forgotten is that Sam was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in his senior season in the SEC. You know, the best defensive conference in the land.

2. It was a football decision for teams not to sign him.

This is among the most amusing of claims. If you don't believe that fear and politics play a part in football decisions, you don't know this sport. At all.

3. Sam didn't make it because he didn't play on special teams.

This is Rams coach Jeff Fisher to reporters, per ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner: "It's rare that you get a defensive end that's going to go out and contribute on all four of your core special teams. So special teams is not part of the equation for Mike."

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

4. If he's so damn good, why didn't the Rams sign him?

Because they have among the deepest and most talented defensive lines in the NFL.

Overall, yes, the media was not perfect on this story. But we weren't alone.

NFL teams have not exactly covered themselves in glory, either.

 

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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