In LGBT sports we often talk of the Domino Effect: one athlete coming out and several following. Derrick Schell (Hillsdale College basketball player) and Connor Mertens (Willamette University football player) stories have led to dozens of athletes reaching out and eventually being their authentic selves. We see it virtually every time an athlete comes out publicly.
None have received the attention of Michael Sam. From the announcement that he was gay, to the draft and the emotional kiss, through the touching speech at the ESPYs, Sam has captivated Americans, LGBT and straight, in amazing ways. Countless folks have chosen to be themselves because of Sam. What he has done for LGBT sports has been remarkable.
This weekend Sam was cut by the Rams after a strong preseason. St. Louis was the wrong fit. The Rams handled the entire process with class.
Yet the disturbing part is that no other team felt he was good enough to make a roster. To add insult to injury, no team added him to their practice squad.
I've had countless conversations with so many folks the last few days: coaches, athletes, media members and even a former NFL player. Every conversation has come back to "attention."
Teams do not want to answer questions about Michael Sam entering Week 1 of the NFL season. Arguably NFL Kick Off is the second biggest weekend of the year in sports; even teams that stink can be positive and focus on the season ahead. Why in the world would they do something to detract from that?
The question I've posed to people, is this a form of homophobia? I do not pretend to be an expert on the NFL. I watch it as a fan, participate in fantasy football and enjoy myself on Sundays. Over the course of years I have witnessed folks like Michael Vick, Ray Rice and Ray Lewis dominate the news with off-field antics. All were distractions to their teams.
The difference: they were solidified pros and Michael Sam is not. It's much easier for teams to not sign Sam. The risk-reward isn't worth it, some believe.
This is where the homophobia kicks in.
Michael Sam is not being signed because he is gay, not because he is not good enough.
A former pro told me this weekend had Sam waited until September to unveil his sexuality, he would be on an NFL roster. We can all speculate, but there is no way to know that.
What I do know is the damage being done to so many youths on the brink of coming out. Michael Sam gave hope to many. "Wow, I can play sports, be gay and be successful."
How many have now stepped back into the shadows?
The process of coming out can be terrifying and take years to go through. For an athlete, the fear of not be accepted by teammates can be paralyzing. Sam opened the door and others have followed. UMass basketball player Derrick Gordon credits Sam with his own coming out. Those in the LGBT sports family have talked about life being better after coming out. Being embraced by friends, family and teammates allows them to live a better life.
What happens now?
I fear for other young athletes who were about to follow in Sam's footsteps. For the next few years, his life may now remain a secret. He will sneak out and fear being caught in the wrong place with the wrong person. Depression and anxiety will build. Coming out would stop him from reaching his dream. The future is changed as the thousands of other he would inspire now do the same. The movement slows down.
All of this because NFL teams fear media attention.
If the day comes when I have a gay player on my team, I hope he comes out. I hope he is able to live his authentic life with his friends, family and teammates. If the media chooses to write about him, we will embrace it and be proud to know he is helping others. I will embrace it with him. This will translate to a more healthy place athletically.
The "distraction" will be worth it: A human being will now be in a better place, and others will be less afraid to follow.