NEW YORK -- Two days after being selected by the St. Louis Rams in the NFL Draft, former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam may already be the most discussed seventh round pick in league history. Sam becomes the NFL's first openly gay player to be drafted, and perhaps not so coincidentally, the first SEC Defensive Player of the Year to be selected this late. He is the first not to be taken in the first round since 2006, and perhaps most telling, the average overall draft position for such a player is 12th, while Sam was selected 249th overall. We can choose to believe that the reason he slipped so far in the draft was because of a bad pre-draft scouting combine or because he's undersized, or we can look at the big picture and guess that, most likely, the NFL was scared to draft an openly gay football player.
Whether or not Sam develops into a successful pro is not immaterial; it matters, a lot. It matters to Sam, to the masculine-centric league and perhaps most importantly, it matters to the countless amateur gay athletes too scared to come out. Fair or not, the 24-year-old Sam has become a pioneer. He has laid the foundation -- hopefully many young men and women will now follow.
When Sam finally was drafted Saturday, ESPN aired the live footage of him with close family and friends. Overjoyed with excitement, he kissed his boyfriend, which drew the ire of fans and even Miami Dolphins reserve safety Don Jones, who took to Twitter (and then the delete button), to express his resentment. "Horrible," the former seventh round pick himself, tweeted.
Jones has since been fined and suspended, but we should not overlook that he sadly represents a significant portion of society that remains intolerant. The bottom line though, is that with many marquee moments in sports, we expect -- and embrace -- our athletes who celebrate with their loved ones: Drew Brees lifting his daughter in the air after capturing the Super Bowl, Dario Franchitti kissing wife Ashley Judd after winning the Indy 500 and Bubba Watson kissing his wife after winning the Masters. Love is love, regardless of orientation. And for the parents out there saying they do not want their children to see two men kiss on television: You should be ashamed and embarrassed.
In a February column on Sam, I wrote that as football fans, we too should support Sam not merely for who he is as a football player, but who he is as a young man. Sam deserves the same respect that any other player -- gay or straight -- deserves.
One person who has not expressed intolerance is Rams head coach, Jeff Fisher, who could care less that Sam is gay. "I don't have any concern whatsoever," Fisher said. "We drafted a good football player."
While Fisher is spot on, one also feels disappointment and resentment that Fisher and his coaching staff had to actually validate drafting Sam. As the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC -- college football's premier conference -- his 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss already validate the choice. Not surprisingly, Sam feels the same way. "I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player," he told reporters at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis.
One day, Michael, one day.
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