Leigh Steinberg, the veteran sports agent, was back on the air with me today to discuss the coming-out announcement by Michael Sam, the former Missouri Tiger who was SEC defensive player of the year and is about to be drafted by an NFL team. I asked Steinberg what impact the announcement will have on Sam's chances in the draft and his future earning potential. I was surprised by his answer to the latter, but we both agreed that the time may be right for an openly gay player in the NFL.
To those who claim teams will avoid him because his story will be a distraction, remember that Sam told his Mizzou teammates about his homosexuality last summer, and that didn't distract the Tigers from a 12-2 season that led them to the SEC championship game and a victory in the Cotton Bowl. While it's not quite equivalent to Branch Rickey adding Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers, some smart NFL owner will step up and hire Sam because he can play football -- and seems to be strong enough to deal with the attention, thanks to the guidance of some savvy PR people.
He'll have to be strong to deal with the vitriolic idiocy of loudmouth Americans -- the same small-minded morons who were mad that Cheerios dared put an interracial family in its commercials, or that Coke had people singing "America The Beautiful" in languages other than English. If Sam is smart, he'll stay off Twitter for a few weeks. On the other hand, Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel and his staff deserve some praise for supporting Sam 100% in the locker room, on the field, and in their public statements today.
The NFL shouldn't be held up as a league of perfect people. It is the league that lied to its own players about the dangers of concussions for decades. This is the league of Michael Vick, Aaron Hernandez, and Ray Lewis. Michael Sam shouldn't be compared to them, as he is not a criminal, but those who view his sexuality as a violation of something holy should consider the environment Sam is about to enter. Does the name Richie Incognito ring a bell?
I read one sports columnist this morning who said Sam may be passed over completely in the same way that the NBA's Jason Collins was after coming out last year. The difference is that Collins is 32, at the end of his career, and was unlikely to be picked up by another team regardless.
One unspoken aspect of this story is that homosexuality is not nearly as accepted in the African-American community as it is in others. Perhaps they should remember the struggle of black players like Warren Moon to prove, more than three decades ago, that they were smart enough to be a quarterback. Perhaps Sam can help demolish another hurtful stereotype and provide a lesson to other black, gay athletes. Perhaps he can be an inspiration to gay boys and girls who feel forced to keep quiet about their own sexuality. Perhaps he can be as valuable off the field as he has been on the field.
But none of that should play a role in what happens to Michael Sam in the next few months.
As seen this morning on KTRS-TV, here's my conversation with Leigh Steinberg, in which we also discussed whether the Rams might move back to LA (he was close with Georgia Frontiere and never wanted the team to leave California in the first place).