Michael Sam, the openly gay NFL draft prospect, spent a few days this week in New York. It was mostly a social visit, his friend and former NFL player Wade Davis said, but of course the topic was raised about being so close to where his future will be decided.
The possibilities are vast before the draft begins Thursday at Radio City Music Hall, and so are the talking points. Sam, projected in February as a third-round pick, dropped 70 slots in one projection only a few hours after coming out as gay. After a poor NFL scouting combine, a slightly better pro day at the University of Missouri, and months of criticism about Sam’s athletic deficiencies, it’s possible the pass rusher spends three days waiting for a call that never comes.
If that happens, Davis said, the perception won’t be that it was because of Sam’s ability.
“The NFL kind of has no win in this situation,” said Davis, who himself came out after his NFL career ended and is now a gay-rights activist. “Because if he doesn’t get drafted, it’s going to be positioned that he didn’t get drafted because he’s gay.”
The league, which in recent years has been promoting its growth and evolution, took a direct hit to its social agenda in February when an investigation into the Miami Dolphins’ workplace culture revealed harassment, slurs and bullying. It would take another if Sam, who led the Southeastern Conference in sacks and was its co-defensive player of the year, isn’t selected in the draft’s seven rounds.
Put simply: The NFL would avoid a major public-relations headache if, at any point this weekend, a team uses a draft pick — seen as perhaps the league’s most valuable currency — on Sam, who Davis said wasn’t planning to stay in New York for the draft and would instead watch the selection show among friends and family in his native Texas. If he goes undrafted or isn’t even signed as a free agent, the NFL’s message of progress and preparedness for a gay player becomes a more difficult sell.
In February, a Sports Illustrated reporter wrote that one NFL general manager predicted Sam wouldn’t be drafted. This week, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel polled 21 scouts about where they’d be comfortable selecting Sam; five said they wouldn’t use a draft pick on him, and an additional seven said they wouldn’t even sign him to a free-agent contract. None was willing to take him before the fifth round. Even the betting site Bovada has listed heavy odds that Sam will not be taken among the top 125 players, or near the end of the fourth round.
Within the margins these past three months have been frequent media leaks about Sam’s character and continual chatter about his physical shortcomings, much of which has come from anonymous sources.
“When you see anonymous people and people who are leaking stories, they’re afraid that their good old football is going to look a lot different. And it’s not,” said Davis, who prepped Sam for his February announcement and has met with NFL officials about how to prepare for openly gay players in team locker rooms.
“They’ve never seen a game Michael Sam played, but they just assume he’s going to be out there with pom-poms.”
Sam’s draft stock has been in freefall, it bears mentioning, since a poor showing at the combine, where his vertical leap and 40-yard dash time — he was clocked officially at 4.91 seconds and posted two false starts — raised more scrutiny about how he and his 6-foot-2, 261-pound frame fit in the NFL. And, in fairness, Sam did say shortly after his announcement that he wanted to be judged only on his football ability.
“I just wish you guys will see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player,” he said during a combine news conference that was perhaps his finest performance during the event.
Bill Polian, the former longtime NFL executive, said this week during a conference call with reporters that, looking only at his skills, he would project Sam as a third-day draft choice because his size is an ideal fit for neither defensive end nor outside linebacker, and because Sam is largely seen as a one-note player.
“Most teams will view his athletic numbers as marginal, even as a special teams contributor, even despite the fact that he’s a tough, hard-nosed football player,” said Polian, now an ESPN analyst. “… What does that translate to: fifth, sixth, seventh round? That’s what it translates to. I think he’ll be drafted, and I think he’s got a better than even chance to make a team.”
If Sam is not on an active roster when the season begins in early September, there’s likely to be much more discussion about whether America itself is more accepting of gays than its sports teams. For now, the NBA’s Jason Collins — whom the Brooklyn Nets signed after Sam’s announcement — represents the only openly gay active player to play in any of the four major professional sports leagues. Davis has said he knows of several more gay NFL players who aren’t out publicly.
But the NFL’s image is not the primary concern of its 32 teams, each of which has a finite number of picks — and, of course, its own responsibilities to consider. Polian said that the organization that chooses Sam should prepare for its own disruption.
“You’re going to face public-relations issues with him that will be different than what your PR director is used to facing, no matter what market you’re in,” Polian said. “Because this now becomes an all-encompassing media issue, which you need to be able as a club to deal with.”
Which, among the many other factors, will compel a team to select him or not. Davis, who played for the Washington Redskins, said he expects the 24-year-old player to be drafted in the fifth or sixth round. He said that Sam didn’t seem worried about the possibilities when they last spoke, a few days before the young player arrived in New York.
“Michael Sam has proven he can play,” Davis said. “He just wants to have the opportunity.”