NEW YORK — For football fans, the NFL draft is like the beginning of a new year. Teams who’ve had a dismal season get a chance to freshen up their roster with young talent while other teams make trades to strengthen their squads.
The three-day event is always a big deal, but this year’s draft is likely to be one of the most intensely watched drafts in years for one reason: Michael Sam.
“I'm Michael Sam, I’m a football player, and I’m gay,” he told The New York Times in February. Since then, Sam has received overwhelming praise and admiration from most of the public — including President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.
But after becoming a household name overnight, the moment of truth has arrived. And it is far from certain that Sam will be drafted, becoming the NFL’s first openly gay player in the process.
Gay rights advocates certainly hope the league will live up to its messaging and find a home for Sam, but with the draft in full swing, the onus is on one of the 32 teams to sign him.
“It’s certainly our hope that he is drafted. He’s one of the most talented college football athletes out there and he would contribute a lot to the NFL,” said Paul Guequierre, deputy press secretary for the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community.
While no team has publicly said they wouldn’t draft Sam because of his sexual orientation, it has certainly had an impact in some circles.
Before Sam announced he was gay, he was listed as the 90th-best prospect in the draft by CBSSports.com, according to SB Nation. By the next day his ranking on the site had plummeted to 160th. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said the day after Sam’s announcement that he should be drafted between the third and fifth rounds, and that the announcement didn’t change his assessment.
Conversation around Sam’s potential shifted from his accomplishments — SEC co-defensive player of the year and consensus All-American — to whether he truly had the speed and strength necessary to play the game on a professional level. After much of the surprise of his announcement had faded, Sam’s performance at the NFL Combine in February was sub-par as he ranked in the bottom one-third among players at his position in some key areas. However, he did show improvement at his “pro day” in Missouri the following month.
Still, a poll of 21 scouts conducted by the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal doesn’t bode well for Sam. Asked in which round they would draft him, the answers were blunt:
“Three said fifth round. Three said sixth round. Three said seventh round. Five said they would sign him as a free agent. Seven said they wouldn’t sign him as a free agent,” the newspaper reported.
Some say that if Sam isn’t drafted, it could wind up being a public relations disaster for the NFL.
“There will absolutely be pushback,” if he isn’t drafted said Bill Duggan, executive vice president of the Association of National Advertisers. Duggan said public speculation on why Sam wasn’t drafted would be a major issue for the NFL, and if he were drafted or signed as a free agent, whichever team he ended up on would have to prepare for extra scrutiny.
“I think there might be some analogy to when the Brooklyn Dodgers drafted Jackie Robinson,” Duggan said. “They were immediately thrust into the public spotlight and Jackie Robinson endured all sorts of indignities. I think a team needs to be savvy enough to know that there will be an extra spotlight on them and the player needs to know that as well.”
The potential “media distraction” of having a gay player is often cited as a reason for declining interest in Sam, but critics such as NPR’s Frank Deford call the “distraction” line an excuse to hide behind.
“We're talking here about NFL teams where bullies, wife beaters, racists, bounty hunters and other assorted ugly ruffians assemble,” DeFord said. “Some homophobes, too? Sure. But to suggest that, in this company, the presence of one young gay man in the showers would somehow be more than this motley crew could stomach — that’s downright ludicrous.”
NFL spokesman Brain McCarthy said the NFL has already had gay players, although none were out publicly while they played. McCarthy said the league has worked with “a number of different organizations over the years” to make sure all players are welcome.
“Players are accepting, coaches and fans as well,” McCarthy said. “Michael Sam is a football player and he’ll be evaluated by his play on the field by the 32 teams and we’ll see where he ends up going.”
Outside of Radio City Music Hall, where the draft is taking place, fans voiced their support for Sam.
Tim McGugan came to New York from Jacksonville, Florida, to watch the draft in person, and said he’d be disappointed in the NFL if Sam were left out of the draft.
“It would be dumb for somebody to say, hey just because of your sexual orientation you can’t play on the football field,” he said.
Stephen Raum, a Jets fan from New Jersey, agreed.
“The NFL is ready for a gay player — they have to be ready,” Raum said, adding that no one doubts there are already gay players in the league and that teams are probably already dealing with the issue quietly. “There are ‘media distractions’ for every team, and if the Jets drafted him I would be thrilled.”
While the pressure may be on the NFL to draft Sam and break an inclusion barrier, advocates say the issue is bigger than the NFL — it’s an issue of whether there truly is room for gay athletes in professional sports.
Jason Collins, a 13-year veteran of the NBA, came out publicly in Sports Illustrated last year after the 2012-13 season had ended. Without a contract entering the 2013-14 season, he eventually signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets in the middle of the season. The deal was eventually extended and Collins remains on the roster as the Nets face the Miami Heat in the second round of the NBA playoffs.
There are no openly gay athletes in Major League Baseball. Robbie Roberts, the only publicly gay player in Major League Soccer, came out and retired simultaneously before coming out of retirement to play with the L.A. Galaxy. U.S. Women’s National Team soccer player Megan Rapinoe came out in 2012, but will soon be retiring.
While several athletes have come out after finishing their careers, younger gay college athletes like Sam, University of Massachusetts basketball player Derrick Gordon and the WNBA’s Brittney Griner, who revealed she is gay after a championship career at Baylor University, are shaking up the sports world by coming out before getting the chance to go pro.
For younger LGBT athletes who are growing up with aspirations of going pro, what happens to Sam, Gordon and others like them is important.
“I think that we’re seeing openly gay athletes come out, they’re sort of trickling in,” HRC’s Guequierre said. “We’ve reached a point in this country where LGBT youth are being told you can do anything. It would be wonderful to see an openly gay star athlete — which Sam was in college — and he has the potential to be a star player in NFL.”
“But the more athletes will come out, the more other athletes will come out. What I think we’re seeing is the beginning of something big.”