It was the best of days. It was the worst of days. It was one man's dream; it was a movement's hope. We were inspired he was picked; we were frustrated it was #249. It was his numbers; but that excuse won't withstand seven rounds of scrutiny like Michael Sam braved. On Saturday, America learned that an openly gay man can be hired by the NFL. America also learned it's really, really hard for an openly gay man to be hired by the NFL.
Call it the "gay discount." While the sports gurus run regressions, what's obvious to football fans who can see raw skill through the pink haze of homosexuality is that by getting a player of Sam's caliber at #249 in the seventh round of the NFL draft, the Saint Louis Rams got a steal -- athletically and economically.
Sam was the Defensive Player of the Year in the nation's most competitive conference, beating out number one pick Clowney for the honors. He led his team to wins against top teams like Texas A&M and Oklahoma State. The gay discount would be glaringly obvious -- had it not been for the combine, the NFL's week-long showcase of players physical attributes for league scouts. Sam's metrics during the combine underwhelmed relative to his exceptional on-field performance.
Commentators and insiders seeking to preempt and deflect criticism of the league's cowardice had their talking points: "tweener," "wrong size," "not a great combine." While each critique had validity, relying on them until the seventh round exposed them as a load of steaming... disingenuousness. It doesn't require a moneyball analysis to see that Jonathan Newsome of Ball State, picked 166, had a combined score of 5.17 to Sam's 5.22. Yes -- his 40-yard combine was faster than Sam; but Sam matched that time at his pro-day. Oh, and Newsome missed two games during an arrest in 2012. Who else is curious how teams' data algorithms weight character?
A few sports commentators, including Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandell challenged fellow analysts who were parroting "gay discount" talking points like "most of Sam's sacks came in only three games" with the retort that number one pick Jadeveon Clowney also got most of his sacks in in just three games. Of all the Defensive Player of the Year awards in the last decade in the SEC, only one player was selected outside the top 33: LSU's Chad Lavalais (fifth round, pick #148); until, that is, Michael Sam rode the rainbow down the charts into the seventh round.
Football fans realize that draft decisions are nuanced -- an art and a science. And that's exactly why Sam's poor draft showing should disappoint those who hoped and expected better from the NFL on draft day. Sam's on-field performance speaks volumes. He's demonstrated remarkable work ethic and an upward trajectory his entire college career. He should have been picked higher, not lower, than his combine metrics suggested (which many analysts said was fifth round).
It's no secret that sports remain behind on sexuality. Maybe games conflict too often with Modern Family, but whatever it is, the problem goes beyond the jaw-dropping homophobia of f-bombs and yesterday's "omg, horrible" tweets from Miami Dolphin Don Jones in response to Sam's much broadcast kiss. It's a self-reinforcing fear that is not actually rooted in hate: The aging bros populating management and the broadcast booth fear openness about sexuality will freak out players and disrupt the team, ignoring the massive progress among the players' generation and today's fans. These old, white guys create and perpetuate the environment where it's "just not discussed" -- and thus voices we do hear are the Don Joneses of the world. With 11 picks left, ESPN's Trey Wingo began: "When you talk to scouts, there were legitimate concerns about Michael Sam's game." With that introduction, it's little surprise that Bill Polian slowed it down a little for Sam's gay (and straight) fans: "I recognize that this is hard for non-football people to understand, but at this point in the draft, you're trying to draft players that have a chance to make your team." Gee Bill, thanks. That is not insulting to anyone on any level.
As awesome and historic a moment as we witnessed, the glaring gay discount shakes my confidence that the NFL is out of the homophobic woods. But the fact that it happened at all shows NFL stakeholders that change is coming, and it's good for everyone. Yesterday also proves that we have to redouble our efforts.
For a day, let's celebrate Saturday's victory, perhaps not the deserved blowout. With Sam's historic "win", men and women, closeted and out, 18 to 60 -- we all fought back tears of joy. Saturday heralded meaningful change. A scared, ashamed and closeted young gay athlete in America's heartland (me 20 years ago) today has an out hero; he will go to bed believing that he can play. He will work-up the courage to live his truth, just like the newest badass NFL St. Louis Ram.
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