There are layers to former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam's coming-out. The first is that it happened, and the sun came up with no more than the expected amounts of bigotry. The second is how it happened, and OutSports has a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the lengthy and complex preparations for what was every bit as managed a media event as LeBron's Decision. The third is football.
Sam's timing is fascinating: Two weeks before the combine, three months before the draft. Plenty of time for NFL teams to do their homework, come to grips with the possibility of making history, and—maybe—let the controversy die down. "The big factor here is that the initial storm will come now, and not after he's drafted, like maybe he was trying to hide it," one NFL GM told MMQB.
But while initial reaction from players has been almost universally welcoming, the executives who will actually make decisions on drafting Sam have been disappointingly retrograde. Sports Illustrated has two separate articles speaking with 12 different NFL GMs, coaches, and scouts, and to a man, they say that being gay will either hurt Sam's draft stock, or cause him to not be drafted at all.
Also to a man, they refuse to put their names behind their comments. A sampling:
"In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
"There's nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction. That's the reality."
"I think it's going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room."
"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down. There's no question about it. It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'"
This is concern trolling. I wouldn't have a problem with it, but his fellow players would. Some took it even more meta, saying it wouldn't be Sam's sexuality that's a distraction, but the media attention surrounding him. Does that fly in a league where players are regularly arrested, get ensnared in off-the-field controversy, and are generally the inhabitants of a media fishbowl to begin with? Locker rooms have survived truly divisive figures before. (And, it goes without saying, multiple players are and have been out to their teammates without any distractions boiling over into public.) None of those other external factors have ever mattered more than how well the player can play.
Sam is an all-american, all-SEC, defensive player of the year who racked up 11.5 sacks for the fifth-ranked team in the nation. He's perhaps not the ideal test case for a first gay NFL player because his draft projections were already all over the board, ranging from the third to the seventh round. If he goes, there'll be no saying how his coming-out affected his draft stock. But the key is this: Nearly everybody has him being drafted.
This is a win-win situation for those hoping the NFL can be an agent of societal progress. If Sam is drafted, he'll be the first openly gay player in the league's history. If he isn't, each and every one of the NFL's front offices will be forced to explain why not.