In a perfect world we'd all be able to agree to hate Auburn, and no one else. Alas, the world is not perfect, and the world of college football is no different. It comes with all kinds of complications. When the complications arise, we're left figuring out how to talk about them, and what's the right tone and who are we worrying about offending, and geez, wouldn't it just be easier if an Auburn recruit got picked up within a week of Signing Day on suspicion of drug dealing?
But this is an SEC sports site. We cover SEC sports and sometimes that means talking about things that happen off the field and require us to seriously question the place of sports in the broader culture.
This is one of those broader culture moments. Yesterday Michael Sam, the reigning SEC co-defensive Player of the Year, a First Team All-American, announced that he is also, coincidentally, a gay man.
There are plenty of places on the internet where you can go find out "what this means." It means different things to different people by the way, and to some it means something very different in private than what it means in public. For the moment I recommend reading the work of my SB Nation colleague Bill Connelly over at Rock M Nation.
If I want to make one point in this brief essay, it is this: Michael Sam didn't owe anyone an "announcement" regarding his sexuality, save perhaps himself. It sounds as if he knew however that his sexuality was going to be a story sooner or later, and that sooner gave things a chance to die down before the upcoming draft. For now the reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, though at least one former teammate points out that things may not have been completely rosy during Sam's time in Columbia.
While the narrative over the past 24 hours has been that everyone supports Sam and that's wonderful I'm fairly certain that everyone in the Tigers' locker room was not totally supportive and that there were probably players who did wait until he left the showers to get in. Players who didn't want to go out with Sam on the weekends. And that the experience may have been very different for a walk-on kicker than for the team's leading pass rusher. This doesn't mean that Missouri as a school, Columbia as a town, and Gary Pinkel as a coach don't deserve some credit for creating an environment in which Michael Sam felt safe enough to be who he was. But I think it does mean that Michael Sam has put in significant time dealing with a personal weight most of us will never have to shoulder, and he managed to become one of the best college football players in America while doing so.
That deserves an immense amount of respect. I can't imagine the fear, the doubt, and the pressure that he must have felt over and over again. Because even though many college towns are noted for being less judgmental places than broader America, Michael Sam likely had a lot of moments when he didn't know who he could trust, or how to act, or what to say, or how to seem. He didn't just survive it, he excelled. Flourished into a guy who's good enough to play in the NFL.
My sense is that this also doesn't mean Sam's draft status has improved.That's because NFL personnel executives are scared of things they don't know how to quantify and process and haven't seen a hundred times before. Sam's status as an openly gay man in the NFL is something that's a huge unknown. It doesn't help matters that the NFL Draft is the perfect environment for those seeking plausible deniability. 31 teams already weren't going to draft Michael Sam because his arms are 1/16th of an inch too short, or his 40 time is 0.02 seconds too slow, or he made an offhand joke about watching Archer during an interview.
Remember, that these are the same people who seriously wondered how Andy Dalton's red hair correlated with his quarterbacking skills, and keep hiring Wade Phillips & Dick Jauron over, and over, and over again. And draft rooms being draft rooms one courageous coach, willing to see Sam as a football player rather than a gay football player, won't likely be enough to get him drafted. It will take a room full of folks on a team whose leaders have been asked, in private, whether they're okay with Sam joining the team.
In short, I don't think Michael Sam is about to become the object of a mad scramble to move up the draft board. I think every NFL GM who drafts a pass rusher not named Michael Sam is going to be asked why and will have a pat answer rehearsed beforehand, likely referencing "physicality" or "measurables" or some other personnel-speak. Some of them, primarily those drafting in the first couple of rounds, won't be misleading anyone about their motives. They will have drafted someone who they already planned to draft before or instead of drafting Michael Sam.
This doesn't mean Michael Sam will not end up in an NFL training camp this summer. The guy's too good a football player not to. Then the drama will center on one team and their decisions regarding his development, access to the media, and at some point whether or not he's going to actually be on the team. NFL teams cut players, lots of players, even sometimes players who they drafted and paid large sums of money to. Players who are deemed "team guys", who do what they're told and aren't "a distraction." Every indication from his time at Mizzou is that Michael Sam is definitely a team player, but at this point he couldn't avoid being a distraction no matter how fervently he wants to.
I'm going to leave it to others to hold forth on what Michael Sam's decision is. But in this guy's opinion, these are the things it isn't. Until later . . .