When former Missouri Tigers defensive end Michael Sam took to the podium to address the press last weekend, he had some rather candid remarks about his new found celebrity status with the media.
Sam spoke with a combination of eagerness, confidence and relaxation—in this day and age of less than quality verbal communication from athletes, Sam is a wordsmith. From his press conference at the 2014 NFL Combine, courtesy of ESPN:
“I wish you guys would just say, ‘Michael Sam, how’s football going? How’s training going?’ he said, decked in NFL combine credentials and a rainbow-colored “Stand with Sam” pin on the necklace. “I wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”
By now, Sam knows what he’s gotten himself into. The media feeds itself off these types of stories. Its ears perk up when the words “gay” and “football” are used in the same sentence. Then it leeches onto the topic, sucking it dry. No doubt, every detail, every angle and every opinion has been covered and re-covered and then re-re-covered.
After all, this is a huge deal. Everyone knows it, from fans, to players, to coaches to the media. And Michael Sam knows it too. But as far as NFL teams are concerned, this isn’t the time to be sucked into all of the hype. This is a time to focus on Sam as a football player.
We all know that for whomever decides to take Sam, the impact surrounding his sexual orientation will certainly be felt just because of the implications of what it means: the first openly gay person to suit up and play football in the NFL. There will be the proverbial media circus. It’s inevitable.
However, while that side of the story may always be in the back of people’s minds somewhere, the hype is eventually going to taper off. At some point, it won’t be in everyone’s news feeds, it won’t be the top headline, and then it won’t be a headline at all. At some point, what’s going to matter most to the team that selects him is this: can this player help us win?
And that is why the GM’s and the NFL scouts and the draft analyzers and the whole lot of them need to— at least momentarily— stop fixating on the personal subject matter of Michael Sam and really address his ability to perform on the football field. Ultimately, that is what is going to matter the most to these teams and their fans.
Having witnessed Sam play from up close and in person, I know just how talented he is. Of course, the talent at the college level doesn’t always translate to the pros. But in my opinion, there are teams out there in desperate need of a player like Sam. He’s a nightmare for offensive lines and quarterbacks. But even more importantly, he’s got the right attitude, the right drive. And once teams start passing him up in the third round, I believe they would be making a mistake.
That may not be everyone’s evaluation of him. But the point here is this: whatever the evaluation about his NFL potential is, it should be made without the “gay football player” variable being considered.
After the dust settles and this groundbreaking event in sports is less of the focus, teams will start to wonder if they made the right decision by either selecting him or not selecting him. In the end, the team he plays for—and perhaps the teams he plays against— are all going to be more concerned with “Michael Sam the football player.”