Michael Sam, the college defensive end at the center of recent media frenzy, is scheduled to perform at the NFL Combine today. Along with his peers and competitors, Sam will participate in drills designed to showcase his speed, footwork and athletic ability. Unfortunately and uniquely for Sam, regardless of his performance, he will be analyzed in connection with his sexual orientation.
The media has repeatedly shown an inability to separate Sam’s football career from Sam’s personal life. At the Missouri product’s combine media conference, the biggest and most important event of his budding professional life, the questions directed at Sam addressed his decision to come out. Reporters seemed far less interested investigating how Sam’s style will translate to the NFL level, his third- to fifth-round draft status and his preparation.
Instead they wanted to discuss how being gay will affect the locker room culture of an NFL team.
This line of questioning is tiresome and unjust. Sam does not have a criminal record; he does not have a suspension or a drug-rap attached to his name. At a critical athletic event, he should not have to divert attention away from his performance to explain his off-field life.
Unfortunately for Sam, certain NFL players have already come out and questioned how he would be accepted by NFL teammates. This sort of speculation only adds fuel to what should be an already dormant discussion. More importantly, these player claims blatantly expose the hypocrisy of NFL locker room culture.
NFL players are too readily welcomed back into their community after domestic disturbances. The recent video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice dragging his fiancee out of an elevator after physically knocking her unconscious is disturbing. The news that ex-Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper is an alleged serial rapist is downright sickening. These behaviors may seem extreme, but they are far too pervasive at the professional level.
In 2013, 21 of 32 NFL teams had at least one player on the roster with domestic violence or assault charges. The NFL players who worry about sharing a locker room shower with Sam need to take a brutally honest look at their own sport and its culture. Football is undoubtedly physical; it’s a gladiator event filled with competing macho personalities who sacrifice the longevity of their bodies for 60 grueling minutes every week. But when its players can’t shed their alpha-male personality off the field, or when they take issue with a teammate who can, a more substantial problem arises.
On the field, Sam asks for no handicaps. He doesn’t use his sexual orientation to define what kind of teammate and player he is. He lets his performance and accomplishments (2013 All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year) speak for themselves. As a middle-late round selection, Sam would be a useful addition to many teams in need of a situational pass rusher.
If drafting Sam brings a team extra media attention, that’s not Sam’s fault or desire. He is a humble and hungry guy with no interest in marketing himself or using his new-found fame to sign an endorsement deal. This kind of teammate is a positive force in a locker room. Sam is the antithesis to me-first players who quit on coaches or engage in contract holdouts. The NFL and its players need to recognize that any prejudiced voices who judge Sam are otherwise out of touch, owners of a backwards mentality poisoning the ethics of the league.