Whenever you mention the name Michael Sam, what follows is a thermonuclear explosion on Twitter and in message boards. There is something about an openly gay football player that causes some people to absolutely lose their minds. It's almost comical.
More sad but also comical.
I think what happened to Sam in the NFL was less about his play and more about bigotry. What has happened to Sam is unprecedented in the history of the sport. Something about The Gay—as Rachel Maddow might say—and football causes people to have aneurysms.
Whenever I say this, my Twitter mentions get quantum torpedoed, but I do believe bigotry played a part in Sam's NFL demise. I will always believe this. And please don't recite his draft or veteran combine numbers. There has been an army of great players who never dazzled in the 40. (Aaaaaand there go my Twitter mentions.)
But I think the latest piece of news—historic news—will solve this riddle. The Montreal Alouettes on Friday announced they have signed Sam.
According to a source close to Sam, his contract is for two years. He will earn $100,000 in 2015 and $150,000 in his second year.
The money isn't vital. The opportunity is. It's a brilliant move by Sam, something I've been saying for a long time that he should do. This is a genuine opportunity for him. No practice squad. No bottom of the roster. No getting multiple sacks in the preseason and then getting discarded. A genuine, bigot-free opportunity from a franchise that truly wants him.
This is it. This is the chance. This is the opportunity I've always wanted Sam to have. If he fails in Canada, then maybe I was wrong. That's not going to happen, though, because Sam will do what other players who went to Canada did: use it as a way of proving himself to skeptical NFL teams.
The list of players who have used Canada as a propellant to reach the NFL is long and significant. Jeff Garcia did it. So did Joe Theismann, Joe Horn, Cameron Wake, Brandon Browner and many others. Canada has been a launching pad for syrup, lack of gun violence, publicly funded health care and, apparently, great NFL players.
What some people say is if he was good enough, he'd be in the NFL now. And if it truly is bigotry, then why would it matter if he went to Canada and played well? The same bigots—according to you, Mr. Mike—would still be in the NFL after he left Canada. They'd still keep him out.
What I'm saying is he will go there and play so well that teams will have no choice but to sign him and give him an honest chance.
The best comparison to Sam is Warren Moon. Whenever I make this comparison, it drives a certain percentage of readers to hysterics. But it's completely accurate. The NFL was still backward when it came to black quarterbacks after Moon came out of the University of Washington in the late 1970s, just as the NFL (and really all of sports) is still backward when it comes to gay athletes now. For gay players, in terms of sports, this is the 1970s. That's what many people, especially when it comes to Sam, fail to realize.
It was clear that Moon was an outstanding talent when playing for the Huskies, yet the NFL ignored him. Even before then, there were strange moments for Moon. He explained one of those moments to the New York Times' Ihsan Taylor in 2009, in reference to the 1978 Rose Bowl vs. Michigan:
One of the things that really prompted our football team was the photo-op with Minnie and Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. It's usually the two quarterbacks that take that picture. And for some reason, the Michigan quarterback did not want to take that picture with me, or he didn't want to pose for the picture, and I didn't know the reason why. Our team looked at that as a slight, too—that they sent their center to take that picture as opposed to their quarterback. All these little things that the Michigan players did—they really didn't want to socialize with us very much on our trip to Disneyland. We just felt like we weren't getting the respect, so it was one of the things that really set the stage for us to win that football game. It was a big motivation.
Moon faced bigotry throughout his entire career. It was, at times, vicious. Even directed at his family.
He also told Taylor, regarding his early days in Houston:
And of course the quarterback takes a lot of that criticism, and I was fine with the criticism. I had dealt with that at the University of Washington. We were building that program, so I was used to it. But the racial part of it, even though that part I was used to from having dealt with it in college, I now had a young family. And my family having to sit and endure a lot of that stuff in the stands was a tough thing for them to deal with because they had never had to deal with that before.
And my young kids had an especially tough time listening to some of the things that were being said in the stands about their dad. That made it tougher for me to deal with, because I had to somehow make it make sense to them.
Moon has told me that when he was in Edmonton, race was never an issue. All these decades later, Moon still travels there to see fans, and he remains highly appreciative of what the Eskimos did for him. As he told Taylor, "There was no talk of race, there was no talk of black quarterback or any of that that I was always being prefaced with in the United States."
We've made strides when it comes to race in sports—but not when it comes to gays. It's the 21st century, and there are currently (since Jason Collins' retirement) no openly gay players in MLB, the NBA, the NHL or the NFL. That says a great deal about sports and how teams aren't ready.
(And a point of clarification here: In the NFL, teams aren't ready. But the league office has been for some time. There's no bigotry there.)
I think what happened to Sam is teams were scared of him. They looked for excuses to get rid of him. The same way teams looked for excuses not to draft Moon. The same way some look to Sam's 40 time as cover for their bigotry.
So here we are, all this time after Sam was drafted by the Rams. And after his brief stint in Dallas.
"With the signing of Michael Sam, we have become a better organization today," Alouettes general manager Jim Popp said in a team-issued statement. "Not only have we added an outstanding football player, we have added even a better person that brings dignity, character, and heart to our team."
Yes, here we are. Sam's best chance. Maybe, actually, to me at least, his first real chance.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.