Saturday, May 17, 2014

Is the NFL Ready for Michael Sam?

The first openly gay player has been drafted into the NFL.  Is everybody ready?

There was a lot of excitement during the NFL college draft last weekend.  There always is.  

Fans wait with baited breath to see who their favorite team will pick from among the best players in college.  This year's first pick was a young man from South Carolina named Jadeveon Clowney, who was selected by the Houston Texans. 

Jadeveon is a defensive end, which means he lines up on the outside corner of the defensive line.  From there, he uses his strength, speed and agility to rush the quarterback, or contain runners who try to break to the outside.  

The Texans are probably hoping that Jadeveon, who is described as having "freakish" athletic ability, will become one of their star players.   

Even so, another defensive end is likely to become an even more important pick than Jadeveon.  That pick was Michael Sam, who was selected 249th by the St. Louis Rams, which was during the 7th round of the draft, 7 picks from last. 

Michael Sam.

Michael Sam has identified himself publicly as gay, the first out-of-the-closet gay man to be drafted in NFL history. 

Football is a strange sport.  On the one hand, it's about as homoerotic a thing available on family-oriented television.  Maybe Olympic-style wrestling is more homoerotic than football, but that's about it.  

In pro football, there are a lot of incredibly well-muscled young men running around in tight pants.  There's a lot of standing around nude or semi-nude in the locker room.  There's a lot of bending over, and a lot of "good-job" butt-slapping.  

There are a lot of red-faced emotional outbursts.  There's also a lot of loose talk about "penetration," domination," "tight ends," "wide receivers," and men who "COULD... GO... ALL... THE... WAY."

Use the word "dictate" in a sentence.
At the same time, football is a hyper-masculine sport.  Its players see themselves as warriors and gladiators, often have as many children with as many women as humanly possible, and don't take kindly to even the slightest hint of a suggestion that anyone who plays the sport might be gay.  

Currently, there are just under 1,700 players in the NFL at any given time, so the idea that Michael Sam is going to be the only gay player is absurd.  Rest assured there are plenty of them out there, we just don't know who they are.  Michael will have to carry the rainbow flag for the rest of them, but probably only for a little while.

"Oh my God.  That was intense."
Michael Sam is a top notch football player, no doubt.  Anyone who gets picked to play in the NFL is an elite athlete.  But Michael has nowhere near the physical gifts of Jadeveon Clowney, for example, and is unlikely to last as long in the league.  In fact, he faces an uphill battle to even make the team.  

Jadeveon is 6 foot 6, and weighs 265 pounds.  Michael is 6 foot 2, and weighs about 260 pounds.  Jadeveon runs the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds.  Michael runs it in 4.92 seconds.  That's only four-tenths of a second difference.  Except that in the NFL, a split second is an eternity.  

If Michael Sam were running toward you, he would look big and scary, and coming way too fast.  But if he were running next to Jadeveon, he would look small, and like he was moving under water.  Further, in a position that demands ballerina-like agility in addition to strength and speed, his scouting report describes Michael as "stiff" and "tight."   

Seventh-round draft picks usually have short careers.  Now and then, one catches on and has a good, or even exceptional career.  But in general, they get cut from teams a lot, often before the season starts, and get picked up by other teams to round out empty roster spots caused by injuries.  Then they get cut again.  

They sometimes end up on practice squads for small amounts of money, pretending to be the opposing team so the players on the roster can better prepare for the upcoming game.  They can be hired, fired, and re-hired every week.   

Eventually, they move on, sometimes to the Arena Football League, or to the Canadian Football League, or to a life doing something else entirely.  

So what am I saying?  Just that Michael Sam, the first openly gay man drafted into the NFL, is unlikely to make a Jackie Robinson like impact on the sport.  

He has already made history.  He will continue to be a pioneer, certainly (and he will get all the arrows that pioneers tend to get).  But chances are he isn't also going to be one of the great players.  

What he may do is give one of the great players permission to say, "Hey, you know what?  I'm gay, too."

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