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Updated – Michael Sam: Out of the Closet, Out of the NFL?

While the NFLu2019s first openly gay player, Michael Sam, has been picked up by the Dallas Cowboys, the leagueu2019s teams had shown hesitance to sign the talented defense, supposedly fearing “media attention.”

Six hours after I published the below piece on Michael Sam, the Dallas Cowboys announced that they would in fact sign the co-SEC defensive player of the year to their practice squad. This was a relief to everyone who believed that Michael Sam—on merit—had earned a place in the National Football League with his stellar pre-season performance for the St. Louis Rams.

It was also a relief given what I wrote in the below article: that the hobgoblins of homophobia seemed to be preventing Sam from getting an opportunity. Under the code word of “distraction”—the distraction being his sexuality—Sam was being denied a place on an NFL roster. Given the endless actual “distractions” belched into the culture from the pro football—from brain damage to racist mascots to domestic violence—one didn’t know whether the “distraction” fears of general managers was an outrage or a farce.

While it is a relief that Sam will get his chance, it is also a thrill that he is landing with the Dallas Cowboys for a series of reasons. Unlike the St. Louis Rams, the Cowboys are decimated on defense so Sam will actually get something that would have been difficult to find in St. Louis: the opportunity to play. In addition, Dallas’ defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is respected as someone who knows how to get the most out of players with Sam’s ability to get downfield and pressure the quarterback. Then there is the city of Dallas itself. Contrary to stereotypes people may have about Texas, Dallas is home to a significant community of LGBT individuals and allies. The city’s elected Sheriff is a gay Latina, Lupe Valdez. Sam could play anywhere, but it is good to know that his new city would be place where he could find support. That gets to the last reason why Dallas is such a quality landing spot for Sam: he is from Texas. Michael Sam has come home. In a sport practically defined by bad news this offseason, Michael Sam actually gives many people a sense of hope. If the people in Roger Goodell’s office did not realize this before, they certainly do now.

* * *

The tweet sent by one of my favorite football writers, Mike Freeman speaks volumes: “GM tells me: ‘Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention.’ To me, that’s cowardice. But that’s just me.” It is not just you, Mike. This is cowardice writ large: risk-averse corporate executives unwilling to improve their team because they fear that the “distraction” of openly gay linebacker Michael Sam is not worth the effort.

For those unaware of the latest news, Michael Sam was among the last cuts of the St. Louis Rams. Despite a stellar preseason where he was among the team leaders in sacks, tackles and snaps. Sam found himself on the outside when the final roster was announced. This in and of itself was not surprising. In a league where pass-rushers are a premium, St. Louis has perhaps the deepest crew of quarterback sackers and run stoppers in the NFL. This made their original drafting of Sam somewhat curious, and it was always unclear how he would in fact make the team. Given Sam’s terrific preseason, though, football scribes took to Twitter and assured the public that Sam would be signed by another team, or at the very least, assigned to the Rams ten-person practice squad. Implicit in these tweets, whether the writers intended this or not, is the NFL’s most treasured public relations point: this is a league that cares about winning above all else, and Michael Sam, who more than proved himself this preseason, would find himself a home.

Now we know that, as of today, Sam was not signed to the Rams practice squad and furthermore has drawn no interest from the dozen or so teams desperate for edge rushers that also run defensive schemes suited to his skills. The 2014 co-SEC defensive player of the year, who just rocked the preseason, is officially on the outside looking in.

Peter King, the senior football writer for Sports Illustrated echoed Mike Freeman’s point about why this was the case, albeit without Freeman’s direct moral judgment. King wrote, “I talked to three [NFL] team architects over the weekend. They’re concerned about the circus coming to town with the first openly gay player trying to make an NFL roster.”

Just look at the language employed by King, because it’s language that meshes together to form a bucket to carry public relations water for the league. NFL executives, you see, are “architects” conjuring for the mind, as George Costanza could tell you, a respectable individual sitting behind a desk, coolly calculating what is in the best interests of his organization. An architect is solemn, constructing something built to last that is of value to a community. Irrationalities like “prejudice” and “gay panic” never enter the thought process, not when you are building the football equivalent of the new wing at the Guggenheim. Michael Sam, meanwhile, and the media who care about his journey constitute a “circus.” What could possibly be less serious and more frivolous than a circus? For that matter what could possibly be less “manly” than a circus? A drag show, perhaps? (To Peter King’s credit, he did write two lines about why Sam is not the “circus” that GM’s believe him to be, as if that is a rational debate.)

The very language that Michael Sam is a “distraction”—which Freeman is one of the few to have the courage to call out—is a way to project and justify one’s own bigotry. Michael Sam is not a distraction. A “distraction” is when a team invites HBO’s Hard Knocks into its locker room. A “distraction” is when an owner proudly and loudly defends a racial slur on national television. A “distraction” is when a player commits a crime like spousal abuse and is then aggressively defended by his organization like all he did was chew gum in class. To equate being open about one’s sexuality and then just playing football (no Oprah reality shows, no special interviews) with being this kind of “distraction” is to traffic in rank prejudice. Once again, to say otherwise, is to practice public relations.

Some argue that teams are not homophobic but it is the media that is in fact to blame because they have created the “Michael Sam circus.” Yes, it is certainly true that there hasn’t been a late-round draft pick to garner this kind of attention, but the interest in Sam is not a media creation. It’s a popular upsurge. Michael Sam has the sixth top selling jersey of 2014 (and you better believe, the NFL is not returning that money). Among draftees, his jersey sales are second only to the phenom that is Johnny Manziel. For people who recognize the ways in which sports has been used to sanctify homophobia, his emergence was a revelation: the hope that the “last closet” could finally be breached. Maybe all of the old tropes like “gays in the shower”, the bricks and mortar that keeps gay athletes in the closet, could finally become a memory. Perhaps Michael Sam would destroy stereotypes and make some history. The hope is that he still can. Maybe Sam plays in Canada next year. Maybe a team does step up and say that on merit, he deserves a chance. However the Michael Sam saga ends, let us please stop acting like the NFL is a hermetically sealed homophobia-free zone. Selling that lie is, frankly, not just bad journalism. It’s a distraction.

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