I spent all afternoon on Saturday watching the NFL Draft’s final four rounds. This wasn’t a labor of love—even a die-hard football fan knows that watching Mel Kiper and Trey Wingo endlessly opine about lesser-known college ballplayers who are increasingly unlikely to actually have NFL careers is not exactly a recipe for a good time—but it seemed appropriate. If you’re going to enjoy the game at its best, it seems only fair to acknowledge the league at its worst, and watching the continued slide of Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive end and reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year who came out as gay in early February, definitely counts as the league at its worst.
Michael Sam, who played high school football in Hitchcock, Texas, was perhaps the second-biggest story of this year’s draft (behind, of course, Johnny Manziel), and the questions about what his future would hold dominated NFL discourse over the weekend—and the months that preceded it.
Before coming out, Sam was considered an early-round pick, although that designation is a bit misleading, and perhaps speaks more to the fact that draft boards in January are hardly solidified (fellow undrafted Texan Jackson Jeffcoat was also considered a strong draft prospect in January): In any case, though, outlets including CBS Sports (which had him listed as a second-round pick), ESPN (whose Mel Kiper listed him as the second-best defensive end prospect among seniors), the Atlanta Falcons website (whose staff coached Sam in the Senior Bowl, and who projected him as a likely second- or third-rounder), and Cowboys blog Cover32 (which evaluated him as a first- or second-rounder) all had high expectations for Sam before he came out.
After Sam came out, those expectations were tempered almost immediately. Offshore gambling site Bovada put the over/under on Sam’s draft position at #125, or midway through the fourth round.
On Saturday, the NFL proved that, when considering how long it’s going to take the league to accept an openly gay player into its ranks, it’s probably smart to take the over. As the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year, Sam is unique among honorees in being drafted so late in the process: the award came into existence in 2003 (prior to that, it was just a single conference MVP, on either side of the ball), and except for that year’s honoree, Chad Lavalais, no SEC DPOY was drafted later than with the first pick in round two. Of the thirteen players who’ve earned that distinction, ten were first-round draft picks; one was taken at the begin of round two; one lasted until round five; and the other was Michael Sam.
Michael Sam was drafted, though it took all day long, and eventually, it was coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead of the St. Louis Rams who called his name, taking Sam with a compensatory pick at the end of the draft’s final round, the 249th player of 256 drafted.
Selecting a player seven slots ahead of the last pick in the draft—a position historically known as “Mr. Irrelevant“—shouldn’t really qualify as “courage,” but in a draft where 248 other opportunities to become football’s answer to Branch Rickey were rejected, Snead and Fisher earn the title themselves. That’s a distinction that Jerry Jones might have had—ESPN’s Adam Schefter interrupted the network’s roundtable discussion of Sam near the end of the afternoon to suggest that the Cowboys, who had a total of five picks in the seventh round, and who desperately need help on their defensive line, might look to pick up the SEC star—but alas, it wasn’t to be.
In February, the idea that Sam might go undrafted sounded deeply unlikely, unless it could be attributed to homophobia. Sports media did a fine job of providing an alternate explanation, though: Sam struggled at the league’s Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February, and his “not ready for the NFL” status became a talking point. (Other players who struggled in workouts include early draft picks and current NFL starters Joe Haden, Terrell Suggs, Anquan Boldin, Zach Miller, Navarro Bowman, and 2014 first-rounder Teddy Bridgewater.) So did his distinction as a “tweener,” who lacked a true position in the NFL. (A title shared by 2013 first-round defensive end/outside linebacker prospect Barkevious Mingo, who will be teammates with Johnny Football in Cleveland, among many others.) The fact that Sam improved on his Combine numbers at Missouri’s Pro Day became marginalized, and a narrative that he just wasn’t very good at football, despite leading the NCAA conference widely considered to be the next best thing to a minor league for the game, began to develop.
All of that helps explain why the process of watching Sam continue to go undrafted through the bulk of the seventh round became increasingly uncomfortable for ESPN’s broadcast team. Trey Wingo, Mel Kiper, and Trent Dilfer spent several awkward minutes discussing the possibility that Sam might go undrafted, explaining that if that did happen, there would still be plenty of opportunity for him in the game—just look at Tony Romo and Arian Foster, who were both undrafted and ended up becoming stars!—while former Colts general manager Bill Polian talked about how, at the end of the draft, teams look for players with “objective” numbers, rather than “subjective” ones.
Sam’s 11.5 sacks against college football’s top competition may seem like an “objective” number from over here, but football people found a lot of ways to avoid talking about the implications of what Sam going undrafted might be.
Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter, and Jeff Fisher—a hard-nosed, strong-willed coach who spent years leading the Houston Oilers—is now the most progressive man in the NFL, if only by default. That’s a surprising reversal of tone for Fisher, whose treatment of former Longhorns star quarterback Vince Young, when both were with the Tennessee Titans, included leaking details of sessions Young had with team therapists to the media. Fisher gets to go down in history as the coach who took a chance on a player who, in one very important way, doesn’t fit the traditional mold of football stars.
In most ways, though, Sam worked very hard to prove himself a football player like any other. He turned down media opportunities leading up to the draft, and initially refused to allow cameras in the room as he waited for his name to be called. Sam eventually softened on that, though, and ESPN documented the moment Sam heard his name, and the subsequent celebration.
That celebration included kissing his boyfriend, and the response to that kiss, which aired on ESPN, reveals more about the sort of stigma that helped push Sam down NFL draft boards.
Perhaps no one in Texas was heard louder when commenting on ESPN’s decision to show the kiss than Longhorns quarterback Case McCoy. McCoy, as the kiss aired, tweeted, “ESPN… You serious right now?” That reaction prompted a bit of support from the embattled Longhorn passer’s more bigoted fans, and a lot of snark (“more serious than your arm” and such) from people who found McCoy’s reaction to be disappointing.
For his part, the criticism seemed to bother McCoy, who followed up that tweet a long thirteen minutes later with one apparently designed to provide cover for his reaction—in the second tweet, McCoy expresses outrage over the fact that no Longhorns player was taken in the draft for the first time in several generations. It’s unclear why McCoy would blame ESPN for that, as the network merely documented the draft as it occurred, nor why he would question whether it was “serious,” since it is indeed a fact that none of McCoy’s teammates—like, presumably, McCoy himself, after he graduates—found themselves drafted into the NFL.
The journey of Michael Sam into the NFL, of course, is only beginning—after being drafted, the next step is making the team, a process that will carry out over the course of the summer. He’s not going to have an easy road with that, either: seventh round picks frequently find themselves on the practice squad, on injured reserve with phantom injuries, or released entirely. The Rams have 90 players on their roster right now, but by the time the season starts, they’ll have cut down to 53. If Sam doesn’t find himself on the Rams, though, 31 other NFL teams have the opportunity to bring him in, without the attention that’ll follow the history-making decision made by Fisher and Snead on Saturday. And, ultimately, there may well come a day in the not-too-distant future in which an openly gay NFL player bull-rushing past the left tackle to bring down the quarterback in the backfield is no longer noteworthy.
But on Saturday, that journey felt especially long.