So at long last, the NFL drafted an openly gay player in Michael Sam, the former University of Missouri Defensive End who came out as gay following the end of his time in college football. He was drafted 249th by the St. Louis Rams. The entire sporting world promptly exploded in an orgy of self-congratulation, fueled by the genuinely heartwarming images of Sam breaking down in tears with his boyfriend at the news that he had been drafted by the Rams. The NFL’s Commissioner hailed it as proof of the league’s commitment to diversity and tolerance; President Obama weighed in, calling it “an important step forward in our nation’s journey”. The whole of the sporting world, and much of facebook and twitter, hailed it as a landmark achievement. If Michael Sam plays in the NFL, he will become the first openly gay player to do so. That, in and of itself, would be a remarkable achievement, and a sign that the last corners where homophobia is deemed “part of the norm” would be withering away.
There’s just one problem, and it leaves a horrible pit in my stomach: Michael Sam should not have been the 249th overall pick.
In his final year at Missouri, Michael Sam won SEC Defensive Player of the Year. He was a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award (best defensive footballer in the US), the Ted Hendricks Award (best defensive end in college football), and the Lombardi Award (best lineman or linebacker in college football). This guy is good. Very good. And he went in the seventh round. In a league where future salary is almost entirely decided by where you are picked in the draft. Sure, his showing at the Combine wasn’t stellar, and there’s always the chance that he may well wash out of the NFL for being too small to play one position and too slow to play a different one – these things happen. It’s entirely possible that Michael Sam will end up being a football player who was legitimately picked in the seventh round for legitimate reasons.
Except that two players were awarded the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Michael Sam and CJ Mosely were jointly considered the best defensive players in the best conference in US College Football. Michael Sam was picked 249th. CJ Mosely was picked 17th by the Baltimore Ravens. In a 256-player draft, drafting an openly gay player 249th, when a player of similar ability went 17th, isn’t progress. And it certainly isn’t radical. At most, a poor showing at the combine was predicted to push him down to the 90-130 range. It was “intangibles” that dropped him a further 120 places. And by “intangibles”, they of course mean “a frightening number of sports players, coaches, and fans can’t come to terms with one of their own being gay.”
I’m very much for progress. I long for the day when players being openly gay doesn’t affect their draft performance. I long for the day when vicious homophobia is no longer an accepted part of locker room culture. I long for the day when a player coming out isn’t big news. I long for the day when it ceases to be an issue at all, when “intangibles [homophobia]” don’t drop a top-end defensive player more than a hundred spots in the draft. Until then, let’s hold off on the self-adulation for a while.