Sportswriters are gamely putting a positive spin on it, but they are lying or deluded: Michael Sam’s failure to make the St. Louis Rams squad and the subsequent decision of every other team (there are 32 of them) to pass on his services as well means that Sam’s quest to become the first openly gay player to be drafted by and make the roster of a pro football team was not just a failure, but may have even set his cause back a year or ten.
Or maybe that wasn’t his cause at all. Maybe a gay player whose skills left him a borderline draftee at best made a calculated decision that his best chance was to shame the NFL into drafting him by announcing his sexual orientation, and gamble that he could shine enough in camp to make the team. The genius of this strategy, if that’s what it was, is that even if he didn’t make the team, Sam would become a celebrity, and in some circles, an icon.
Well, that part worked. What doomed the rest of the plan were, in order of importance,
- Sam isn’t good enough to be a trailblazer.
- The media made certain that such a big deal was made over Sam’s sex life that no NFL team could avoid wondering, “How much will having this guy around get in the way of winning football games?” From Ethics Alarms in February:
The irony is that it is the mostly positive media obsession with Sam’s status as a potential trailblazer, rather than the anti-gay hate-mongers, who diminish Sam’s chances of success with their every word. This is obvious, or should be, yet the articles and rants keep on coming. I have to believe that it is a case of sports journalists engaging in the ultimate hypocrisy, making themselves look fair, unbigoted and devoted to the cause of full gay inclusion in American life (all while making their deadlines) while simultaneously and knowingly undermining the athlete they claim to be supporting. They have to shut up, or Sam is doomed.
They couldn’t help themselves, of course, and sure enough, Sam was doomed.
“Football teams want to win and make money, ” I wrote. “They do not, and I mean none of them, care about making social statements or advancing human rights agendas, nor should they; it’s not what they exist to do. With every self-righteous article about how Sam is a test for the NFL, how the world will be watching, about how this is a defining moment for the sport and the nation, Sam’s utility for those prime directives, win and profit, the goals that matter in professional sport, the objectives that most football fans care about, retreats, along with his value and earning ability.”
- Sam’s messy liplock on his partner in response to his last-minute drafting by the Rams was a terrible miscalculation—stupid, really—that had Rams executives rolling their eyes and counting the days until they could cut him.
So now what? My guess is that no player of Sam’s dubious NFL potential will dare coming out until gay players are openly flourishing in NFL stadiums, and who knows when, or if, that will happen? If there is a sure-shot first round draft prospect, one good enough to be football’s gay Jackie Robinson, who chooses to risk a near certain pro career and the millions that come with it, that would mean real, rather than illusory progress for gay rights, but such a scenario requires a convergence of factors that are far from certain to occur soon–great player, gay player, gutsy gay player. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
The sad reality is that Michael Sam hurt, rather than advanced, the gay rights movement in professional sports.