Two Former NFL Players Say League is Ready for Michael Sam
Michael Sam is a good football player.
On the field, he produced 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss in his senior season at Missouri. In his contributions to the Tigers, he was named to the All-SEC first team, SEC co-defensive player of the year, a unanimous All-American, and voted as the Most Valuable Player for the Missouri Tigers in 2013.
Now, on the brink of likely being chosen in the NFL Draft, Sam made a groundbreaking announcement that will surely change the landscape of the league. He told Chris Connelly of ESPN's Outside the Lines on Sunday night that he was coming out as gay.
It was powerful, and compelling as Sam tells it best.
"I'm not afraid to tell the world who I am. I'm Michael Sam: I'm a college graduate. I'm African American, and I'm gay. I'm comfortable in my skin."
Sam was brave, like Jason Collins in the NBA, or Robbie Rogers in the MLS. His decision comes at a unique time. Sam is about to embark on a new journey into the NFL, while Collins was at the end of his NBA career, and Rogers was in the middle of his.
The star defensive lineman's decision comes after playing in the Senior Bowl, and before the NFL Combine, and Draft. Many eyes will be on Sam, and one former NFL player says that it is better to come out sooner rather than later.
"Better to announce now than to do so the first day you show up on a team. That would take teammates by surprise, being such a poignant topic and uncharted waters. From his perspective, it's never a perfect time, but do it now, and get it out of the way. Then, I feel he should try to direct future conversation towards focus on evaluating him as a 'player,' not an advocate with an agenda other than football," adds nine-time NFL veteran Rocky Boiman.
The timing is certainly interesting for Sam to come out, and as we have learned from the last two years, society is becoming more accepting of the gay culture. Boiman tells why he thinks it will be welcomed, and if he would announce it to the public like Sam did.
"I was talking to my wife. One, within the last two years, the gay culture has been a lot more accepting. Younger people aren't having a problem with it. Two, would I do it? I don't think I would. The media likes to exacerbate stories. The guy (Sam) is a strong person, carries a lot on his shoulders, and it's good for him."
As culture has become more accepting and seventeen states have legalized gay marriage, the question now shifts to the NFL. Is the league ready for a gay football player?
"They have been prepared. They have workplace etiquette, and saw the impact it can have from (Jason) Collins. They want to have an image to where they can accept anybody," says eight-year NFL linebacker Jay Foreman.
Sam appears ready for the next step, and the NFL. Following his decision on last Sunday night, the Missouri defensive lineman can now focus on the draft process. His statistics proved in his senior season that he will likely get drafted, but there's always a possibility he could go undrafted. He's projected to go in the mid-rounds on draft day. Mel Kiper of ESPN says at the upcoming NFL Combine he will have to prove he can play as a 3-4 outside linebacker on his feet, and not just as a designated pass rusher.
Teams will have to consider the big picture with Sam. The Missouri star has on-field and off-field questions, and much will be taken into consideration as the draft gets closer. Foreman weighed in on what he thinks may happen.
"Realistically, there's 32 different opinions. They are going to worry about the negative and try to exploit the positives. They will throw darts. It's part of the process. I could see a team with a strong veteran locker room, a vision and a plan go after Sam," says Foreman.
When and if a team does pick up Sam, the biggest test of his young career will be the first time he steps inside a locker room. Both Boiman, and Forman, with a combined seventeen years of NFL experience, say it's a tough environment, but if the player comes in and wins, it changes everything.
"It's a tough environment, and you have to have tough skin. Everyone is looking to compete against each other. Some guys will be turned off by what goes on in the offseason, but if he doesn't perform, and isn't eligible to play on Sundays, it won't be a big deal. There's always a story. (Sam's decision) is monumental, it's early on, and he has a legit shot to get drafted. He was the SEC co-defensive player of the year. Great for him if he can play. I wish him luck. He's courageous and wanted to do it his way. It was smart on his part by announcing it early so teams can't say they never knew. A big monkey is off his shoulders and hopefully he gets drafted high," shares Foreman.
Boiman agrees with Foreman, and says at the end of day, all that matters is if you are helping the team out positively.
"The culture is male-dominated, it's tough guy stuff, and there's vulgar language. But, are you helping us win football games? If you are, you'll be accepted, and if not, the guys will have a problem."
The locker room isn't the only part of the NFL that Sam will have to adjust to. When he's on the field, he will have to learn how to react when he's at the bottom of pile.
"What will happen when someone calls him a homosexual at the bottom of the pile? How will he react? I hope he shrugs it off. He's a strong-willed kid. These are brand-new waters he's treading," adds Boiman.
New horizons, indeed. Sam will have to face future coaches, teammates, and the media, and in this day and time, the public. Players have fans in stadiums chanting possible insults and on the Internet, posting hurtful messages.
"There's more access to players in real time with social media. A lot of voices can hurt a player. It can turn in to a fire storm. A lot of pressure can derail a career. But once you perform, it can supersede a lot of what could go wrong," says Foreman.
Wherever Sam ends up, he will have these questions. Boiman implies that the defensive lineman must focus on playing the game he loves.
"The best advice I can give him is to move on. Talk about football, and not draw more attention. No team likes a media soapbox. Teams want to focus on a player that eats, sleeps, and breathes football, and so do your teammates."
That's all he can do. He can go to Indianapolis at the NFL Combine, and show the scouts the real Michael Sam and the guy who was named co-SEC defensive player of the year. After all, he is tough. In his childhood, he lost a sister in a drowning, had a brother that was shot to death, another brother that disappeared and was never found, and two older brothers that have been in and out of jail.
His story is tremendous, and fans of the game should hope that Sam isn't judged by his sexual orientation. He is transcending the game the same way Jackie Robinson did when the color barrier was broken in baseball. The only difference is Sam is doing it his way 67 years later.