The media has loved talking about Michael Sam since he was drafted in the seventh-round by the St. Louis Rams this past spring. The defensive end from Missouri. The Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year and one of the leaders of a 12-2 (7-1 SEC) team.
Of course, as you know by now, this isn’t why he receives the media coverage he does. Sam is the league’s first openly gay player.
To be clear, Sam isn’t the first gay NFL player ever. There have been many players before him. Some have since “come out of closet” and others remain quiet about their sexual orientation even after their playing days. We shouldn’t be ignorant enough to assume that Sam is the only gay NFL player currently in the league either.
The reason why this story is relevant again, aside from the fast approach of the NFL preseason (and Sam’s tryout) is because highly regarded former NFL head coach and current NBC football analyst Tony Dungy has said he wouldn’t have drafted Sam if he were still a head coach.
“I wouldn’t have taken him.” said Dungy (via the Tampa Tribune). “Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth… things will happen.”
As you would imagine, these comments have sparked some controversy, but I think it’s time to put them into perspective. Dungy, the former Buccaneers and Colts head coach, was – first and foremost – presenting an opinion. It’s an honest opinion and isn’t to put Sam down, but is a concern that much of the NFL, it would appear, shared during the lead-up to the draft. While Sam was considered a long shot to be a high draft pick due to his “tweener” body type – meaning he was too small to play 4-3 defensive end, but not athletic enough to play a 3-4 rush linebacker – he was a Co-SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Players who have earned that distinction, since 2004, have been drafted in the first two-rounds of the NFL Draft when they have entered the league. While Sam’s “tweener” status doesn’t warrant perhaps that high of a draft pick, I don’t think St. Louis was the only team that could potentially use a player who, regardless of size and athleticism, dominated the SEC and secured 11.5 sacks in his final season with Missouri. Point is, Dungy’s opinion may not be unique to him, but nonetheless, it is his opinion that there is too much to “deal with” when it comes to bringing on the attention Sam brings.
The bigger issue here is why Dungy would say this. Why is there a genuine concern that Sam causes a distraction? Sam isn’t going out and attracting scrutiny or asking to have his photo taken. Heck, Johnny Manziel
could very well probably will be drawing similar media attention to that of Sam. Why? Because Manziel is unique. He is a star player that people want to know more about. He is an exception to the rule. He is different from other players who spend their summers quietly working out, training and then showing up to training camp ready for the season. Attention follows the unique and the exceptions.
The problem is that the media wants to bring attention to Sam’s journey. They want to use the veil of “monumental moment in the progressive nature of sports” to warrant devoting air time to their fascination with Sam. Don’t get me wrong, Sam being the first openly gay player in league history is a big deal as nobody should feel excluded for simply being themselves (I’m aware of the irony of that statement considering my disregard of Dungy’s statements – bear with me). That said, it is problematic to cover this story as the media has been, and will be during the upcoming preseason, because by singling him out – a player who really has a slim chance of making a stacked St. Louis Rams team – you inadvertently reinforce the idea that he is “different”.
By focusing on him, the media reinforces the notion that he is an outsider of sorts. It comes across as a human interest story about a human trying to join a wolf pack. It continuously points to how Sam is different from other players. Every headline will be “First openly gay NFL player…”. That is problematic because the only way for something to be accepted, as gay athletes in sports should be, is to take it for granted. We need to accept Sam as part of the football community because he is a football player, not because he is a unique and “different” person in the NFL that we must know more about. While there are certainly players and/or front office personnel who may have their issues with Sam for whatever reason, the only way to make this acceptance of gay athletes stick is to treat them like everyone else. How does the media watching Sam like a hawk make other players want to come out?
I get the value of presenting what it means to the NFL that Sam has come out and still is pursuing his dream of playing in the NFL, but everyone needs to realize that singling him out is problematic as it inadvertently points to him being “different” from others.
As for Dungy, he is entitled to his opinion and he very well could be right. There could be issues moving forward. Perhaps people have trouble getting past their own homophobia and seeing Sam as a football player. Maybe fans become the bigger issue. Either way, if we just accept Sam as “one of the guys” instead of making him some beacon for change, then we will move on to a point where suddenly the gay athlete is taken for granted instead of singled out. I’m sure Dungy, who has argued that not enough college football programs are hiring minority coaches, didn’t mean that Sam shouldn’t have had the opportunity to play in the NFL, but was speaking more directly to the sorts of attention Sam has and will be getting. I believe it is that attention that is the problem, while Dungy was simply speaking his mind from a former coaches perspective who would have wanted to avoid the “Hard Knocks” media coverage.
I doubt the media as a whole will suddenly take a gander over to this post and suddenly change their programming, but at least some people seem to have the right idea. In the same article from the Tampa Tribune, St. Louis Rams wide receiver T.J. Moe, a teammate of Sam’s at Missouri, was asked about Sam’s presence on the team.
“There’s a 90-man roster right now. It doesn’t go 89, and then Michael Sam’s over there – this is the gay team, this is the straight team. Michael Sam is on this team and he’s treated just like anyone else.”
Final thought: isn’t it tough to make a point about why the media shouldn’t cover a story… by writing a story…