I mentioned the other day that I planned on watching the entire NFL draft, as is my habit. Although everyone was kind enough not to say it, I'm sure most of you were thinking "Good God, has he no life?" Well, no, but it's very hurtful to point that out. But lo! Who has no life now, as he got to watch history unfold? Okay, it's still me. Thanks for pointing that out as well, jerk.
As my beloved Cleveland Browns had apparently decided that scoring points isn't necessary to building a winning football team, I'll admit that I spent the day alternately cursing their front office and, more to the point, waiting to see if Michael Sam would get drafted. Sam, as the world has known for a few months now, would be the first (publicly) openly gay player drafted into the NFL. If he were drafted. Despite being rated by many experts as a fourth-round pick, Nate Silver placed the odds of him getting picked by a team at 50/50. There were a few reasons for this. First, there's the one that everyone already knows about. Second, to be clear, someone who is drafted in the 4th-7th rounds of the NFL draft is far from a sure-fire success as a pro, and even if a team wasn't scared off by the prospect of drafting a gay player (and risking "the drama" that could bring), there are several legitimate football-related reasons teams might hesitate to draft him. (The reverse is also true—without issues of his size, speed, etc., he might have gotten drafted later than he deserved, but there wouldn't have been as much suspense as to whether he would be drafted at all; if he were, say, a gay player with what was considered first-round talent, he might slip to the second or third round.)
But then something interesting happened as I watched the coverage of the draft from the NFL Network. The host of the coverage, Rich Eisen, started asking the "draft experts" on the panel, in increasingly pointed fashion, why Sam hadn't been drafted yet. The experts, in turn, pointed out that there were two players that had similar skill sets to Sam, and that, of the three, he had the most deficiencies in his game. That's a potentially fair argument. But then they both got drafted. Sam didn't.
A little while later, a player in a similar position, Terrence Fede from perennial football power Marist University, got drafted. Sam didn't. Not to be unfair to Fede in what was no doubt a great moment in his life, but Eisen asked the experts, ""You mean that there's a guy at Marist who is a better choice as a defensive end than the defensive player of the year in the SEC?" The experts again hemmed and hawed. Well, you don't know what teams think about when they decide who to pick. They look for a lot of things, including fit for the defensive system. Sam was just too slow when he worked out for scouts. Eisen pushed on—all of that could be true, but still, there is no way to argue with any honesty that someone from Marist University was as good a player as one from the University of Missouri. Yes, but...fit. And besides, a lot of good players have come from small colleges.
And, they added as a consolation, once the draft is over, there would be plenty of teams that would be interested in signing him. He'll have plenty of suitors, one of them said, and it might be best for him to be able to pick his team rather than get drafted late. More freedom that way. It's a neat trick: simultaneously explain why nobody wants a player, then explain how a lot of people really do want him.
It was then that I went from hoping that Sam would get drafted to thinking that he had to get drafted. As the analysts pointed out, he was going to be on an NFL team tonight one way or another. He's talented enough that if he hadn't gotten drafted, he would have had several opportunities to sign on with a team as an undrafted free agent. This is true, but UDFAs get thrown together in news stories after the draft. The Browns have signed these eight guys. The Patriots signed these five. Sam would be the headliner, but it would be a headline that was an afterthought. Getting drafted meant a team would announce, from the podium, "We want this guy on our team."
That's why, as the picks trickled in, and more teams took other players, I got more and more angry. (I half-jokingly said to Taint Nuttin that I was terrified of the possibility that he would fall to the Browns' last pick and I would be forced to yell at them for drafting another defensive player.) And then, as we know, the Rams came through. I'll admit to crying a bit when they did. Someone finally stood up and said, "We want this football player on our team."
And that, hopefully, is where things go from here. This probably won't have a Hollywood ending, as most football players—and even more so, most late-round draft picks—don't have long and successful careers. And I'm not foolish enough to think that this is going to end homophobia in sports or society (witness the revolting reactions to Sam kissing his boyfriend after being drafted). But even if he gets cut before the regular season starts (a distinct possibility), if the Rams give him a fair shot (and I think they will), the second gay player won't have to have the same degree of bullshit to go through to get his shot. He still will get much more than his fair share, but it will be somewhat less, and that's why Michael Sam had to get his name called.
ETA: After writing this, I've spent some more time thinking about the analysts and their, well, analysis, and I think I was a bit unfair to them—I don't think they were consciously trying to ignore the elephant in the room as much as they were trying to say that it wasn't just about the elephant in the room, which is entirely fair; there are teams that would be less likely to pick Sam because he's gay, to be sure, but there are also teams that wouldn't pick him because they didn't need a player at his position, because he lacks certain skills and attributes that teams look for, etc. The initial post comes across a bit like "Rich Eisen vs. guys pretending that Sam's sexuality has no bearing on his draft prospects," which isn't the case, although there is no shortage of players who get drafted in the later rounds despite not being perfect fits, having physical limitations, having honest-to-goodness off-the-field issues, etc.