By Tim Kawakami San Jose Mercury News
Strictly from an NFL viewpoint, the Michael Sam situation isn’t vastly different from decisions teams must make on virtually every player at every step of the way — either in the draft, free agency or if they’re already on the roster.
Every player has unique traits, talents, personal histories and potential story lines, and it’s up to a G.M., coach and owner to sift through all of that and decide how and whether there’s a fit. The San Diego Chargers did that last year before drafting Manti Te’o. The Philadelphia Eagles did it early last season with Riley Cooper, weighing his value, after his racial epithets came to light.
The Sam situation just has a higher social profile than possibly any other that has come before it, so the teams will be put under more scrutiny. But the process is the same, in my opinion. You always have to go through the same process.
The smartest teams figure out how to extract the most value out of what’s available to them; if Sam can contribute to an NFL defense — and his SEC Defensive Player of the Year award sort of suggests that he can — then his sexual orientation doesn’t lessen that.
One of Jim Harbaugh’s great themes might be my favorite one: Football competition is pure.
The game itself is not altered by biases or personal baggage, it’s just football, which equalizes everything else except talent, intelligence and will.
The best teams put the best available players in the best positions to win; the worst teams find ways not to put the best players out there.
But I’m not naive: Sam’s situation is a new one for NFL execs, coaches and players, and this is certainly a world of high aggression, testosterone and occasional over-the-line behavior.
It’s not surprising that some personnel evaluators believe that Sam’s public announcement has hurt his draft status and that there are questions about how he could fit into an NFL locker room.
Sam, a productive but undersized defensive end in college, is projected as a linebacker for the pros and hasn’t yet shown the speed and agility to play that spot, so his draft value was unclear even before the announcement.
It sounds like the draft pundits had him anywhere from the second to the fifth round. As with a lot of prospects, who knows?
But as always, it takes just one team to draft him. This is not a consensus thing. There’s no way Tim Tebow was a first-round talent, but that’s where Denver took him.
Will teams shy away from Sam? Maybe if they rate him equal to two other players, they’ll lean to the other players, just to avoid the possibility of distractions or tension. That kind of thing might knock him down a round or two from where he otherwise would’ve landed.
Will teammates shun him? Will opponents deride him? There probably will be instances of that; it’s football, it’s not always a nurturing environment. But I don’t think that will be the prevalent attitude, I just don’t.
It certainly doesn’t seem to have been the dominant mood of the Missouri football team, which knew Sam was gay for all of last season and went 12-2. Talent is talent, period, and 90 percent of football people live that.
Some teams will be more worried than others about drafting the sport’s first openly gay player, just as some teams are more worried about drafting shorter quarterbacks or running backs with knee injuries or players who have gotten DUIs or gotten kicked off their college teams.
Talent rules. If Sam is talented enough, I’m confident he will be drafted, probably a round or two lower than he should’ve been, probably by a smarter team that wants value and has a strong enough locker room to bat down the extraneous distractions.
Could that be the 49ers? Maybe. I’m not sure he fits exactly what they do on defense, but I wouldn’t think they’d worry about “distractions” if he’s the right value at a particular draft slot.
He’ll fit somebody’s valuing. Then the rest will be pure football, as it always should be.