Whether He Wants It or Not, the Media Circus Will Be Following Michael Sam
"I wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the gay football player." — Michael Sam at his NFL Scouting Combine press conference, February 22
On the evening of February 9, as Missouri defensive end and prospective 2014 NFL draftee Michael Sam was announcing to the world that he is gay, one prominent NFL Draft website had him rated as the 90th best prospect in May's upcoming draft.
To translate, that ranking of 90th equates to Sam's being about a third- or fourth-round selection, which is right around where most experts had forecast he would go, for while he was incredibly productive as a collegiate player, productive enough to garner SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, Sam is still seen as "undersized" by NFL standards.
Roughly an hour after Sam's announcement that he is homosexual, and presumably after checking with a handful of NFL personnel, that same website had plunged Sam down the board, all the way to a ranking of the 160th best prospect, or around a fifth- or sixth-round selection.
While it's accurate to say that Sam's announcement of his sexual orientation caused NFL people to move him down their "big boards" (or at least tell insiders they moved him down), it would be inaccurate to say they downgraded Michael Sam because he is gay.
In other words, NFL teams weren't discriminating against Michael Sam because he is a homosexual, they were downgrading him because his being a homosexual brings "the circus" to town.
What's the circus, you ask?
The circus is the media horde that follows whatever the latest salacious, clickworthy NFL story is. To an NFL head coach, the circus has zero redeeming qualities. It's a distraction, and coaches hate distractions. If you're causing the circus's arrival, you'd better be worth the trouble.
If you're still struggling to grasp the "circus concept," just think of Tim Tebow, whom we media sheep follow like mosquitos to a bug zapper. Now ask yourself the last time you saw him doing anything remotely near an NFL team. It's been awhile, right? Right.
Tebow is no longer worth the distraction that the circus brings.
The NFL is harsh like that. Darwinism, man. Survival of the fittest. Sometimes, its uncontrollability is downright unfair.
And that's Michael Sam's challenge: overcome the uncontrollable.
Sam not only has to win his fair share of battles against NFL offensive linemen on the field while meshing with new teammates off the field, he also has to rise above the stigma that he is causing the presence of hundreds of media members who are asking his teammates, "What's it like to shower with a gay guy?"
History tells us that Sam will excel with the portions of his brave new world that he can control.
Sam is a good football player with a tremendous motor, so the field should be a safe haven for him. As for the locker room, Sam's 100 or so teammates and his coaches at Missouri all knew he was gay, and they embraced him. The team won 12 games last season. If Sam effects similar winning in the NFL, his teammates will love him there, too.
But nothing Sam can do will control the circus, and according to former Houston Texan defensive lineman Travis Johnson, that amount of attention on one guy can be divisive.
"It's not so much the additional media around the team; it's the perception that this guy is getting all this attention, and for what?" Johnson said. "You have offensive linemen working their asses off, and they get no love, and this rookie special teamer has a crowd of reporters around his locker. Even though Sam probably isn't asking for the spotlight, he still has it. Guys can take that the wrong way."
Johnson opined that maybe Sam shouldn't have announced his sexual orientation publicly at all, that most guys in the locker room truly do not care. "As long as you can help win games, that's all guys care about. Let's be real; as players, we all know we've had gay teammates already."
But not coming out as openly gay was never going to be an option for Sam. Rumors of his sexual orientation chased him going back years at Missouri, and by the time early February rolled around, the truth was a powder keg ready to explode.
"I was asked directly about it and indirectly about it, so it was known," Sam's agent, Cameron Weiss, said about Sam's being gay. "It wasn't just among the scouts; it was among others close to the game, like reporters. It was circulating out there."
So understandably, Sam wanted to announce and discuss his orientation on his terms. Again, it's about control. Sam could control the story, instead of the story controlling him.
Be the dog, not the tail.
Longtime super agent Leigh Steinberg has handled the NFL draft fortunes of hundreds of players, including the first overall pick in the draft each year from 1989 through 1993. Steinberg applauds Sam's courage, but would have done one big thing differently.
"I would have had him continue after the first couple of interviews, answer every question at a podium until the cows come home," Steinberg offered. "Then you pivot, now you're a football player."
Unfortunately for Sam, that opportunity has come and gone.
In the wake of recent stories of horrific bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room, it's a fair question as to just how ready an NFL locker room is for Michael Sam. Yes, there have been gay players before, but never a publicly gay player. How will this go?
"There will be teasing and practical jokes, the same way there is for guys for any number of reasons," said Johnson. "The only thing off limits is your kids. Other than that, guys joke and cut up on anything. As long as Sam isn't overly sensitive about that part of it, he will be fine."
The NFL Scouting Combine came and went last week, and Michael Sam's performance was far from extraordinary. He ran a very pedestrian 4.91 40-yard dash, and didn't really wow the scouts in any of the drills.
All in all, it wasn't a great weekend for Michael Sam the football player.
The likely fallout from Sam's underwhelming performance in the drills was compounded by the size of the media throng at his press conference, which drew a crowd even bigger than Johnny Manziel's. It served as a reminder to NFL teams that many of them will interpret as a warning: Michael Sam the football player is still Michael Sam the gay football player, and wherever he goes, the circus is coming to town.
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