National Football League players are partially hidden from view by helmets and facemasks. University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam decided that he didn’t want to have to wear another kind of mask to play in the NFL.
He didn’t want to have to hide who he really is — a proud, openly gay man who hopes to play professional football. The two Michael Sams, the one who is a homosexual and the one who is a pass-rushing defensive end/linebacker, shouldn’t have to co-exist as separate entities.
Sam’s courageous decision to come out as the first openly gay NFL draft prospect is a direct challenge to the macho milieu of the league’s locker rooms, where a testosterone-fueled canon of conformity defines what is acceptable behavior.
All Sam, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, can ask is that he is evaluated the same way as a prospect who is heterosexual. True equality isn’t about making exceptions or allowances for someone who is different. It’s about giving them an equal opportunity to prove they can do the job. That’s progress. That’s the NFL’s burden here.
Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery struck the right tone when asked about Sam in his e-mail response to the Chicago Tribune.
“Each and every player in the NFL is a unique individual, as we all are in life. We all ultimately gain respect in our jobs by how well we perform at our chosen profession, and if the level in which we perform adds positively to the collective goal of success.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick offered a similar response in a statement.
“We evaluate all the players, including Michael Sam, based on the totality of who they are and who can best contribute to our team and organization, regardless of the matters being discussed today,” Belichick said. “They all have strengths, they all have weaknesses and no two human beings are identical. Our scouting staff has performed extensive work on Michael, both this season and going back throughout his career. That work will continue through the draft process this spring.”
At this point in the draft evaluation process, which will come into greater focus after the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis later this month, Sam is regarded as a mid-round pick (third to fifth round) at best.
The reality is that as an undersized defensive end he simply may not be good enough to make the transition to the NFL, whether he is homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, or asexual.
What was alarming following Sam’s announcement on Sunday, though, was the immediate discussion and speculation about whether a team would want to take on the “distraction” of bringing Sam into its organization.
Sports Illustrated quoted anonymous NFL executives and coaches saying Sam’s revelation could harm his draft stock.
If Sam falls in the draft because a team doesn’t want to deal with the media scrutiny or potential locker room discord from drafting an openly gay player then that is a listless, gutless organization, devoid of leadership.
Teams overcome outside distractions all the time.
Most dysfunctional, disunited teams break down from inside turmoil, not outside scrutiny (see: 2011 Red Sox).
The Patriots overcame the distraction of Aaron Hernandez being charged with murder to go to the AFC Championship game this season. The Miami Dolphins missed out on the playoffs, but not because of the fallout from the Jonathan Martin hazing imbroglio. They were 4-4 when the scandal broke and went 4-4 in its aftermath.
The Sam distraction angle is the rationalization of prejudice and fear.
It’s also sending a dangerous message. That it’s better to have a drug problem coming out of college like Hernandez, punch a cop in the face days before the draft like Patriots cornerback Alfonzo Dennard, or be arrested multiple times during your playing career like Adam “Pacman” Jones and Kenny Britt than be openly gay if you want to play in the NFL.
Where Sam’s treatment becomes complex is if the politics of his announcement become a built-in excuse for his lack of appeal as a football player.
Before he came out as gay, scouts had questions about Sam’s NFL fit and future.
He had 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss his senior season. Both numbers were more than his first three seasons combined (eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss). Nine of his sacks in 2013 came in three games.
One veteran NFC personnel man who saw Sam at the Senior Bowl said he was “unremarkable.”
“To me he is an average prospect,” said the personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “People are going to think he is a great player, and when he doesn’t get drafted high it’s going to be because he came out or whatever. To me a lot of academics and people who don’t know the game, who simply look at his credentials on paper are going to think that.
“Right now, it’s being talked about that he was the Defensive Player of the Year in the best conference in college football, so he has got to be all that. But he’s a 6-foot-1, 250-pound, system-specific pass-rusher. I don’t know. I thought he was a middle-to-late-round guy, to me that’s what he looked like.”
The personnel man said Dee Ford of Auburn, whose team defeated Sam’s in the SEC title game, is a much more “dynamic” undersized pass-rusher than Sam.
A gay player is not new to the NFL, the idea of an openly gay one is.
Players like Kwame Harris of the San Francisco 49ers and late Washington Redskins tight end Jerry Smith, a two-time Pro Bowl selection who retired in 1977 holding the NFL record for touchdown catches by a tight end, have been identified publicly as homosexuals after their playing careers.
The question is whether an openly gay player can be judged solely by how he plays not whom he loves.
Sam showed his true face, now it’s the NFL’s turn.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.