Monday, February 10, 2014

Protecting the Shield: Why the NFL really cares about Michael Sam

Sunday night, everyone found out what Michael Sam's friends, family, and teammates had known for some time--Sam is an openly gay football player. Sam's courageous decision brought much deserved admiration, but soon after being lauded, the ramifications on his career, specifically his draft status, became the focus of the story. This quick pivot away from Sam's decision is partially a product of our news cycle but was fueled by an SI news article, posted shortly thereafter titled, "How will news that Michael Sam is gay affect his NFL draft stock?" This article, full of off-the-record quotes from eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches, subtly explains exactly why Michael Sam's homosexuality will drop him in the NFL draft, costing him hundreds of thousands of dollars and hurting his chances of making an NFL roster.

The money quote in the piece comes from an "assistant personnel man" who acknowledges that "90 percent of teams" were aware of Sam's homosexuality. The fact that corporations about to make million-dollar investments have done thorough diligence into irrelevant details of assets' lives should come as no surprise. What is surprising is that Sam has basically been backed into a corner. Perhaps he would have come out to everyone before the draft, or perhaps he would have waited until he was drafted and told his new teammates. However, with each murmur about his sexuality, Sam had less and less of a choice. This unfortunate reality would be okay, if it were not for that fact that Sam is now being punished for the perceived "distraction" or "firestorm" it would create. Say nothing and your personal life will be spilled without you having any control, or say something and you will get blamed for creating a distraction.

This is the reality of the NFL. There is an unwritten code for any NFL player: adhere to media protocol, speak a lot (or risk being criticized like Marshawn Lynch) but say nothing, and in no way act bigger than the team. These requirements are part of the same goal. Teams want to limit distractions and Roger Goodell wants the entire focus to be on the product itself. This pervasive fear of distractions runs the gamut from being racist, beating your wife, or simply publicly supporting gay marriage in the case of former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. Michael Sam's homosexuality will be no different than any other "distraction." In the words of another anonymous executive, "Not that they're against gay people. It's more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'"

This quote might as well say in big letters, NO DISTRACTIONS ALLOWED. The NFL coaches and general managers crave control and want their players to be football robots. Robots when dealing with the media, robots in their personal life, deviate from protocol by showing a hint of personality and you will be met with scorn. Some idiot journalists even questioned Peyton Manning's commitment to the Broncos after their Super Bowl loss because he has a few national commercial. The fear of distractions flies in the face of reality and the NFL's history. The NFL is made up of young millionaires in their twenties. There are players who abuse drugs, players who get arrested, players who had fake internet girlfriends, and players not afraid to call another player "mediocre" in a post-game interview. These "distractions" whether it be from Michael Vick, Riley Cooper, Richard Sherman, Michael Irvin, or dozens of all-time great players, have not proven to actually impact a player's ability to help his team win football games.  

For the sake of argument, even if we lump Michael Sam's sexuality into this assortment of "distractions" there again are dozens of examples of teams succeeding despite distractions. Nonetheless, his draft stock will go down. Once it goes down, teams will be more and more hesitant to draft him. The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year will be drafted below his actual talent or not at all because of his sexuality. There are gay NFL players right now. Some of their teammates know they are gay. There are also homophobic NFL players. These players have not come out of the closet because they know, and they have seen, that any semblance of being a distraction could lose them their job. These players are not cowards, they are pragmatic and looking out for their own security. The issue is not even being gay, the issue is teams having to deal with the media and potential disruption that could occur if a gay player comes out of the closet. 

Roger Goodell, a man with a gay brother, has the influence and authority to make sure Michael Sam gets treated like any heterosexual player. However, he will not do anything. Goodell controls a billion-dollar industry and has made it his mission to authoritatively and definitively stamp out anything that does not focus on the game. At best, he has paid lip services to very real concerns about player safety and revenue shifting. His style is to fight a PR battle, not effect real change. He's the coward. It is only when the NFL has been so thoroughly embarrassed, like when the Packers lost a game due to a replacement referee's blown call, that he capitulates. Michael Goodell was quoted as saying, "Roger is fine with this. He’s a good businessman and he’s been around this issue his whole life." Michael Goodell raised the right issue, but he has too much faith in his brother. Roger Goodell has no financial incentive, even in 2014, to support Michael Sam by making sure that NFL teams adhere to their anti-discrimination policy. 

Michael Sam is a hero and a good enough defensive player to get drafted. He controlled his decision to come out to his Missouri teammates then led them to the SEC Championship Game. The locker room did not fall into disarray because Michael Sam is attracted to men while the majority of his teammates are attracted to women. He led their defense because he is a great player. However, to NFL executives, his sexuality being out in the open is simply another distraction. He brings with him the fear that Kelly Ripa will show up to training camp and his team will never recover. In the aged eyes of coaches and general managers, the NFL is still a "man's mans" game. This despicable mantra has no place in 2014, and is in large part simple posturing from authority figures who feel that being an NFL requires being able to scream at their players and call them gay slurs.

Michael Sam is not a distraction, he's a football player, and an uncloseted gay man. He possesses the talent to get drafted by an NFL team and I hope he does. It only takes one team to see through the bullshit fears of homophobia among players and media coverage (especially in a league like the NFL where at least one team is HBO's "Hard Knocks" during training camp) and draft Sam. I only hope it's the Packers.

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