There are plenty of conspiracy theories surrounding the Rams’ selection of Michael Sam in the 2014 draft, all centering around the NFL’s desire to avoid the PR of watching the league’s first openly gay prospect go undrafted. But this is a new one.
Howard Balzer is a longtime NFL reporter, and these days he’s largely a radio guy in St. Louis. Balzer reports, citing multiple unnamed and undescribed sources, that the NFL cut a deal with the Rams: draft Michael Sam and the team would not be forced to appear on that year’s edition of Hard Knocks.
Sam, at least, thinks it has the ring of truth.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher says it’s bullshit.
“That in itself is absolutely absurd, it’s 100 percent incorrect,” Fisher said. “I was really taken aback by those comments. It’s insulting, from my standpoint, as it relates to Michael. We had three seventh-round picks. When we drafted Michael he was the best player on the board. Who in their right mind would think that you give up a draft choice to avoid doing something like that?”
I am inclined to be skeptical, because Balzer takes his conspiracy theory even further. He intimates that the NFL instructed all the teams picking after Sam’s selection to avoid taking DE Ethan Westbrooks, who, in Balzer’s telling, the Rams would have chosen if they weren’t compelled to take Sam. This supposedly allowed the Rams to sign Westbrooks as an undrafted free agent.
(This ignores that the Rams had another selection immediately after they took Sam, and did not use it on Westbrooks. Balzer dismisses this by writing “it would have been unseemly to take Westbrooks there.” I don’t know what that means.)
It’s plausible that the NFL and a single team could have a handshake deal in place. It’s less plausible that a whole bunch of teams were in on a conspiracy and successfully kept it quiet for two years until Balzer sniffed it out.
Now, there is a halfway theory that does make some sense. It’s very easy to picture the Rams willingly using their draft pick on Sam, but first informally reaching out to the league office to see if they could avoid doing Hard Knocks and bringing in a full documentary crew to cover a training camp that would have already been the furthest thing from normal. That would have been a real factor for Fisher and the Rams—we know they vetoed a planned Oprah Winfrey Network documentary on Sam that would have filmed in camp.
It’d be a matter of causality, then. Balzer’s story that the Rams drafted Sam to avoid Hard Knocks carries very different implications from the alternate, that the Rams asked out of Hard Knocks because they were planning to draft Sam.