At the very end of the seventh and final round of the 2014 NFL draft, after 248 other collegians had found a professional home, the St. Louis Rams selected Michael Sam, a 6-2 261 pound defensive end from the University of Missouri.
Yeah. That’s a pretty big deal. With the pick, Michael Sam became the first openly gay athlete to be picked and, should he survive this summer’s training camp, will make history as the first openly gay active player in NFL history.
The final four rounds of the draft are a televised event that’s usually of great interest only to the truly fanatical devotees of the sport. But as the final picks ticked away, the question of whether or not Sam would be selected at all made for a politically charged drama.
Sam was the first SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the history of the League to last this long, and it’s a record that he’s bound to hold for a while. In fact, over the last 10 years, every previous awardee had gone in the 2nd round at the latest.
Earlier, when Sam’s draft status was in serious doubt, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell made a statement of support Sam, declaring that: “I want to see Michael Sam get an opportunity to play in the NFL. We like to say the NFL is the ultimate meritocracy. If you can play football, they want to see you play. The teams want you. The fans want you. And that’s ultimately what it’s all about. I have great respect for Michael, his courage, his decision to become public, and I’m optimistic that he’s going to get that opportunity, and hopefully he can play at this level.”
Had he gone undrafted, it would have made for a tumultuous few hours or even days, as the league waited to see if a team would ink Sam as an undrafted free agent.
As I wrote this past Thursday, while Sam’s sexuality undoubtedly played a role in his precipitous drop from a sure-fire third-round pick to a 50-50 shot over whether he’d be drafted at all, it’s not a question of overt or conscious homophobia or bigotry on the part of the NFL, the players or the fans.
Watch: Michael Sam Gets the Call
The NFL (and all major sports leagues) is an incredibly profitable corporate entity that by definition is concerned only with the bottom line. Avoiding Sam because of any fears of unwanted “attention” is certainly acceding to prejudice, but it’s foolish to expect them to behave otherwise. So yes, they were certainly worried about the PR hit they might have taken, but not because they were willing to reconsider the small-c conservative groupthink that led Sam to drop in the first place.
Thankfully, Rams Coach Jeff Fisher knows that this story isn’t over, but is far more concerned with what occurs on the field.
“There’s going to be a little extra attention for a couple days, but Michael’s the co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year,” Fisher told the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen. “We’re looking forward to this opportunity. We have a very mature team, we’re not going to let any distractions affect this football team.”
Fisher also made it clear that any of the so-called “distractions” that may arise as a result of the Rams’ choice, it’s worth it. “I don't have any concern whatsoever,” Fisher said. “We drafted a good football player.”
Sam would certainly agree. At the combine in Indianapolis, he was quoted as saying, “I just wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."
Now, he gets to do that, even if the competition to make the team is bound to be fierce. He’s going to have to carve out a roster spot on what is generally considered the best defensive line in pro football, featuring stars Robert Quinn and Chris Long, an emerging talent in Michael Brookers, and fellow Rams draftee, Aaron Donald, the 13th player chosen in the 1st round.
It’s been quite the day for LGBT performers. Earlier this evening, Austrian Conchita Wurst, a bearded 25-year-old drag queen, won the Eurovision Song Contest by belting out the ballad, “Rise Like a Phoenix,” in front of a massive, international audience of approximately 180 million viewers from 45 different countries.
Her victory came in the face of a slew of homophobic and transphobic attacks. Ms. Wurst responded to her purported critics by telling the Associated Press: “I can only say ‘Thank you for your attention! If this is only about me and my person [sic], I can live with it. I'm just a singer in a fabulous dress, with great hair and a beard.”
Like Wurst’s triumphant expression of joy, Sam too provided an indelible image as a coda to this momentous day. After earlier reports surfaced that Sam didn’t want ESPN’s cameras present if and when he did find a pro team to call home, he later acceded. When he finally got the call from the Rams, he kissed his boyfriend.
And if anyone reading this is prompted to recoil in disgust, is feeling quote-unquote “outraged” by this public display of affection, or starts fretting and clutching one’s pearls, wondering how this might affect “the children” that may or may not have been watching on TV, well guess what?
You’re the child.