If you are rooting for Sam to become the first openly gay player to crack a regular-season roster, if you are a longtime supporter of equality causes or if you just believe in meritocracy and want every individual to get the fairest possible shake, then stop reading.
Do not share this article on your social network. Do not, under any circumstances, make this article a briar patch of hot-button issues and debate topics.
OK, my editor is giving me the serious stink eye. Let me explain.
Sam is attempting an NFL comeback after spending last season's training camp with the Rams and a handful of early-season weeks on the Cowboys' practice squad. He is preparing for the all-new veterans combine in March. It's an event that's perfect for young street free agents like Sam, who are otherwise consigned to the team tryout carousel.
Sam has drawn zero interest at the street free agent rummage sale. While dastardly motives are not hard to imagine, it's likely that many team officials have copped the Tony Dungy plea: An openly gay player would be a "distraction" that would interfere with the march to the Super Bowl. There are a few dozen holes in the "distraction" argument, but let's set those aside for a moment.
General managers claim Sam is a distraction, in large part because of the media attention he generates. Sam is preparing to participate in an offseason event with so little star power that it makes the seventh round of the draft look like the Super Bowl.
Writers like me will work ourselves into a little tizzy trying to embrace some debate. Suddenly, Michael Sam is a sizzling topic again as he runs 40-yard dashes and three-cone drills.
General Manager X then says, "See? This guy is not worth the hassle." Sam then gets passed up in favor of some anonymous defensive ends with roughly similar resumes. If only we had kept our mouths shut.
It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can only defy it by keeping quiet and adopting a "no biggie" attitude toward Sam's comeback. You and I are Sam's biggest problem right now. If we treat him like just another guy, maybe the NFL will, too.
Or maybe not.
The Ultimate Canard
Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, is highly skeptical of my "media attention is hurting Michael Sam" hypothesis.
"Michael Sam is not in the NFL," Zeigler reminded me Monday. "Michael Sam has not gotten a phone call from an NFL team in months. Michael Sam could not get a workout for an NFL team. How is this going to hurt him more? Are they really not going to call him?"
Zeigler wrote a definitive article on the state of Sam's comeback attempt early in the week. It's not a rosy picture. Sam has not been contacted by an NFL team since the Cowboys cut him from their practice squad in October. He has not even received a routine weekly tryout or a zero-risk, minimal-obligation futures contract.
Perhaps NFL teams are frightened of coverage exactly like Zeigler's article! There's only one problem: No one has been writing front-page features or filling talk shows with Sam debate. Zeigler has followed Sam's journey closely, but gay athletes are of course the Outsports beat.
Rams and Cowboys players and coaches have stated, without exception, that Sam was no "distraction" to their teams. Neither the Rams nor Cowboys endured a maelstrom of criticism when releasing Sam; if anything, Zeigler thinks they earned some benefit of the doubt by giving Sam a shot.
Richard Deitsch, media expert for Sports Illustrated, also finds my "self-fulfilling distraction prophecy" theory dubious.
"For any NFL team to use the distraction excuse to not sign Michael Sam is the ultimate BS canard," he said. "I don't think the circus is coming to town. I think that's an absolute absurdity."
Deitsch pointed out just how much control NFL teams have over media access: Credential and interview requests can simply be turned down or revoked if reporters/photographers/videographers don't follow the rules set down by the league and team. Like Zeigler, Deitsch maintains that Sam coverage has been relatively restrained since the brief over-boil of last year's draft.
"Once he became part of the Rams roster, I don't even think you could call the media attention heavy. It was moderate at best."
Furthermore, the Sam narrative cupboard is getting bare.
"So much of his story is already out," Deitsch said. "We know he's come out. We know a lot about what it meant to him and his background. We know that he's engaged to be married. So much of the news value is already gone."
It doesn't look good for my "fear of media" theory, which admittedly sounds a little silly in the face of the facts.
"What you're saying is that NFL executives are so incompetent in their jobs that a couple of bloggers in their living rooms in Topeka can sabotage an NFL season," Zeigler said.
Wait…go back to that incompetent part again.
Ted Sundquist spent 16 years in the Broncos organization, six of them as general manager. During his tenure, the Broncos were stable, organized and very successful. But not all NFL organizations are created equally.
"When you look across all 32 clubs, it's almost like looking at a family," Sundquist said. "There are certain organizations that are older and wiser, more internally capable of handling both the distraction that a player brings and the ripple effects that distraction creates within the media and the community, as well as any national scrutiny."
"Distractions" can affect a football team, whether they come from a troubled, high-risk player (the Broncos drafted Maurice Clarett on Sundquist's watch) or one who attracts unusual attention for non-football reasons (Tim Tebow, Michael Sam). Some franchises manage the extra attention and potential controversy easily. Other franchises, in which communication between departments is strained and turnover is constant, do not.
"I think it depends upon the maturity level of the organization," Sundquist said.
In an "immature" organization, ownership may be overinvolved, or so uninvolved that ownership-level executives are not even briefed when a potentially controversial player is acquired. Coaches and personnel executives may not plan, prepare and communicate well enough to stay on message when discussing that player to the media.
When ownership and football operations are at loggerheads, the public relations department faces a no-win situation. The coach or general manager for an immature organization has good reason to fear anything outside his comfort zone. A blown press conference really could jeopardize his job.
Something as simple as the arrival of unexpected national media can rattle an organization that doesn't quite have its act together. "It can be like a BB in a can that just bounces around," Sundquist said. "Instead of being proactive they become reactive."
As for "mature" organizations, "They know who they are," Sundquist said. "They know what message they want to send. They're willing to make decisions, good and bad, and stand up for those decisions. They're not knee-jerk when the first criticism comes through. They're strong enough to deal with pushback."
The excess media attention, then, would hurt Sam's chances of landing with an immature organization. Then again, immature organizations are probably too reactive and fearful of the unknown to sign him in the first place.
One persistent problem with my "fear the media circus" theory is the complete lack of a media circus. Everyone I spoke to, on the record and off, scoffed at the notion of photographers and gossip-mongers parachuting into some team's headquarters, hiding in bushes and stirring up controversy about an openly gay defensive lineman.
Deitsch and I were both at Jets training camp at different times during the Tim Tebow saga in 2012. ESPN's cameras were everywhere, taping everything. The tabloid press was out in force.
When a shirtless Tebow jogged away from a postponed practice in a downpour, the beefcake photos and videos were viral sensations and back-page news. With so much attention, reporters tripped over each other in their rush to cover minor, unrelated controversies. It was not a healthy environment in which to prepare for a football season.
"If you want to buy into the distraction piece, there's legitimacy there," Deitsch said of the Tebow-Jets debacle. "I see it. I buy it. People were reacting to the 'Media with a capital M.'"
"But in Sam's case," Deitsch added, "I just don't see it."
I spent several days at Rams training camp last year, purposely seeking signs of a media circus, or a cultural fracas, or even a handful of pro- or anti-LGBT picketers waving signs at the practice facility gates. There was nothing: no embedded television cameras, no Entertainment Weekly reporters.
I was one of three national reporters on hand for those first practices; others were scheduled to arrive, but all (like me) were on the kind of training camp tour that travels from Michael Sam to Johnny Manziel to Sammy Watkins in search of "what's new" football stories.
"It's really just the St. Louis media on the sidelines, which looks like the Giants or Jets media in the offseason, during a flu epidemic," I wrote last July for Sports on Earth. "This is not a circus. It's not even a church parking lot carnival."
In the days immediately after the draft, when Sam kissing now-fiance Vito Cammisano on television became a minor front in a culture war—and tabloid press went so far as to play up Cammisano's alleged Mafia ties—Sam's story carried a whiff of Tebow. When the Oprah Winfrey Network barged onto the scene with plans for a reality series, it complicated matters further.
Maybe, just maybe, there was something to the "distraction" talk last May. "Before the draft and after the draft, if you want to play that card, that's fine." Deitsch said. "I don't think it's a legit card to play, but I think there's real evidence to at least make a case for that."
But everything blew over by June. Training camp Sam stories focused almost exclusively on football. When Sam sacked Johnny Manziel and made the "money" sign…yeah, we paid attention to that.
Sam's release by the Rams brought some criticism, which quickly subsided. The Cowboys signed Sam to their practice squad and released him six weeks later. The story generated more discussion than the typical waiver moves for a seventh-round defensive end, but no presses were stopped.
As you may recall from September and October, we had other things to worry about.
Crossing over into Culture
The nature and timbre of Sam coverage might be more significant than its sheer volume, though. Instead of Tony Kornheiser, Michael Wilbon or Skip Bayless, teams that sign (and possibly later release) Sam must theoretically brace for TMZ.com, Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow or Nancy Grace.
The league was mired in domestic violence controversies that brought non-sports heavy-hitters into the conversation last year. Teams may be leery of inviting discussions of discrimination and homophobia to their doorstep and may be dragging their feet in the hope that someone else picks up the loose ball.
Deitsch believes the difference between the sports media and general media is a real factor for NFL teams.
"A story that crosses over into culture would scare more NFL team PR departments," he said. "There's a lot of safety in knowing the people who are questioning you on a daily basis."
Sundquist agreed that "non-sports media" could become an organizational issue, even if the football operations department tunes it out.
"It might have an impact on the other side of the building, on the business side," he said. "The general manager and coach are now so focused on the football aspect of it that the broader criticism, or klieg light of scrutiny, becomes something they make a statement about up front. Then they press on.
"That doesn't mean that the president of the club, or the ticket manager or those close to the owner don't sweat a little bit," Sundquist added.
Individual teams have well-established relationships with the local newspapers and radio stations, as well as national entities like ESPN and Bleacher Report.
If I show up at training camp and ask questions that might stoke a quarterback controversy, that's part of the game. But if I ask inappropriate, obtrusive questions, a team can revoke my credential, call my editor or contact the NFL media to have me blacklisted from events like the draft and Super Bowl.
I could easily lose my job for stepping too far outside the lines. That's a power teams do not wield over, say, a celebrity reporter who could raise a ruckus, leave his/her press pass at the door and cover Taylor Swift the next day.
The problem, once again, is that Michael Sam generated moderate-at-best gossip-column or culture-warrior buzz, even when his story was fresh.
"If TMZ or Los Angeles paparazzi were going to follow Michael Sam around everywhere he went, yeah, that would be a significant issue for that team's PR," Deitsch said. "But the notion that that is happening is absurd. Michael Sam isn't a Hollywood actor. He isn't a Kardashian."
What minor entertainment-media dustups might occur appear to be in the rearview mirror. The Oprah reality show blew over in a couple of offseason days. A misreported "Rams in the shower" story drew immediate retractions that, for once in journalistic history, were louder than the report itself.
"The only people and institutions that looked bad in that story were [reporter] Josina Anderson and ESPN," Zeigler notes.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher publicly fumed at the shower story and was no doubt irked at the prospect of dealing with reality-television producers.
Still…is that all there is? A quick kibosh of some OWN network cameras, and a minor muckraking flare-up of the sort that the Redskins must extinguish every time Robert Griffin III's name is mentioned? At the height of its novelty value, the Sam story may have necessitated three or four aspirins to cope with media-inflamed headaches.
As Mike Freeman reported in this week's 10-Point Stance, teams are preparing to sign free agents like Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy upon reinstatement. Richie Incognito, hardly a "worth the risk" superstar like Peterson, has returned to the NFL. Many teams surely believe they can endure some blowback from the non-sports media.
It all goes back to Sundquist's concept of "maturity." Some teams can cope with the extra attention (the Rams and Cowboys, to be fair, both appeared to do a very good job), while others can't. Some teams lack the communication and trust among ownership, football operations, business affairs and public relations to make a rational decision and organize a coherent plan for any kind of controversial player.
"It's having confidence and communicative ability to get everybody on the same page," Sundquist said. "This is why he's going to make us better. And this is what we have to do to help him and help our organization absorb him."
Perhaps the issue is not media scrutiny or organizational bigotry. Maybe, for many teams around the NFL, it's a matter of immaturity. Part of growing up, after all, is learning to stop being distracted by silly things.
A Guy You Should Bring In
NFL teams hold weekly tryouts for street free agents during the season. Sundquist outlined the procedure the Broncos followed during his tenure; other teams have similar procedures.
Each Tuesday, five to 10 players at a given position try out for scouts, coaches and either the general manager or a lieutenant. The free agents, often a year or two out of college, undergo physicals, interview with coaches and run drills.
The general manager asks the coaches who stood out. Those players go on a short list. The general manager keeps constant track of them, calling their agents and staying abreast of their health status and availability. In the event of injury, those short-list free agents get the call, sometimes minutes after a player clutches his knee on a Sunday afternoon.
Each team has two or three "short list" free agents per position on speed dial. There is much overlap among those lists (if you impress one coaching staff, you probably impress many), but multiply two free agents by 13 major position groups (specialists excluded) by 32 teams, and you get a group of over 800 "near-NFL players."
Multiply the five guys getting tryouts by 13 groups and 32 teams, and you get a pool of about 2,000 players, outside the 1,696 on 53-man rosters and 320 on practice squads, who are in semi-regular contact with NFL teams about potential employment opportunities.
Michael Sam has not been in that 2,000-person pool since the Cowboys released him in October.
From a pure football standpoint, there is no justification for his absence. Everyone I spoke to about Sam in the scouting realm rates him—based upon his college tape, his stellar work habits and background and his solid Rams preseason—as a player who should at least be on a practice squad or the bottom of a 53-man roster. Barring that, he should emphatically be among that 800- to 2,000-man pool of players who get regular phone calls and tryouts.
Even sources who cautioned not to read too much into Sam's lack of tryouts last season—teams went "over and above" analyzing his film and character during last year's draft process and don't need a workout or interview to get to know him—expressed shock that Sam was not offered a "futures contract," a low-risk, low-cost arrangement that guarantees little more than a parking spot at a team's first minicamp.
Sundquist considers weekly tryouts and futures contracts to be a vital part of a mature organization's player-acquisition process.
"I love this pool of talent," he said. The players are still young enough to develop and make an impact, but most have been through training camps and are no longer starry-eyed. "You get guys coming in whose evaluations and mental and physical makeup from your last college report still hold true. And they hit the ground running."
Sam, in particular, would shine in such a situation, given the chance.
"He's been through the scrutiny of his lifestyle," Sundquist said. "He's been through training camp. He just wants an opportunity to play now. This stuff is not new to him anymore. He's answered the questions. Now he's just hungry."
Sundquist said he is "kind of shocked" that Sam did not get other opportunities after the Cowboys release. "We're talking about a talented guy. From a height-weight-speed factor, he should garner attention. He should be a guy you bring in.
"From a football standpoint, why not?"
Shouting, "Because of NFL Bigotry!" is a lazy, reductive response. Sundquist, Zeigler and others who have spoken frankly to NFL or NFL Players Association officials about Sam (or gay rights in general) can attest that the league itself wants to welcome—and be perceived as welcoming toward—openly gay players. It comes down to individual clubs.
Zeigler acknowledges that some of the teams that would most likely welcome Sam might not have use for his services because they play incompatible schemes or are stacked at his position. Other teams' reluctance to even contact Sam remains a mystery. "You have to ask each team, 'What are you afraid of?'" Zeigler said. "Of course, none of them will tell you the answer. That's why I stopped asking."
Even the Rams and Cowboys did not invite him back, the Rams despite a rash of defensive line injuries. Media "distractions" could hardly be the cause for teams that already weathered that sprinkle of a storm.
Sam may be caught on the wrong side of a sliding scale that measures a player's talent with each organization's willingness to take a perceived risk. If Sam had J.J. Watt-level ability, "distraction" fears would quickly be swept aside.
There's a reason baseball's color barrier was broken by Jackie Robinson, not Jackie the backup middle infielder. For a likely role player at an unglamorous position, some teams would rather avoid even the possibility of a ripple of unwanted attention. A similar phenomenon has kept Tebow out a league that currently employs quarterbacks with names like Sean Renfree, Tyler Bray and Brad Sorensen.
Tebow crossed a signal-to-noise threshold of no return in 2013. Sam's situation is comparable, except that the "noise" in his case is more of a bump in the night that has some teams inordinately spooked. At any rate, if Sam hopes to prove that the goods far outweigh the chatter, the veterans combine is one more double-edged opportunity.
Overshadowing the Story
The veterans combine is designed to improve player development opportunities and simplify and standardize the offseason veteran acquisition process. The event should be a boon to dozens of overlooked players.
Sundquist thinks it will be invaluable and would like to see more events like it. Deitsch thinks (and scouting sources agree) that potential Pro Bowlers will be discovered. Sam should benefit from a tryout-and-interview opportunity that (unlike last year's combine) does not arrive quickly on the heels of his coming out.
But Sam will be the most famous player there, by far. If I attend the veterans combine, Sam will be my principal assignment. If Sam holds a press conference, it will attract every camera at the event.
Will such attention simply justify fears of "distractions" or a "media circus"? If so, it will probably only happen for those seeking justification.
When pressed, Zeigler conceded that "it might not hurt him if the press left the Sam story alone a little bit." The goal, in the long term, is to make the sexual orientation of a football player or anyone else non-newsworthy. We're just not there yet. There's genuine interest in Michael Sam. And some NFL teams are not prepared to deal with that interest in a mature, professional matter.
So what's a media type like me to do? An assignment is an assignment. Sam's comeback, particularly in the run-up to the veterans combine, will be news. And I don't pretend to be unbiased: I am rooting for the kid, and for the greater cause.
Shutting off my tape recorder and treating the NFL's first openly gay player as just another guy probably won't convince some organization that its media-circus fears are unjustified. But why take the risk? Even an article like this one can stir the pot just enough to make some "immature" organization nervous.
Maybe the veterans combine just needs a bigger star to overshadow Sam.
"You know who can help Michael Sam the most right now? Tim Tebow," Zeigler said. "If Tim Tebow applies to the veterans combine, then Michael Sam won't be a thought on anybody's mind. Please, Tim Tebow, go to this veterans combine. Thank you."
Tim Tebow riding to Michael Sam's rescue? Sorry, Cyd Zeigler, that would be some seriously distracting news.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.
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