I know I’m not the only person on Earth whose mind immediately jumped to Jason Collins when NFL draft prospect Michael Sam made his big announcement. Jason Collins was the NBA player who came out of the closet last year, becoming the first professional sports player to do so. Like anyone with a forward-thinking brain, I was initially thrilled because Collins was played up by the sports media as a perfect candidate: Former first round draft pick, played on two teams that made the Finals, was well-liked and respected in his locker room, and about to become a free agent. What could possibly go wrong? Well, like any other NBA enthusiast would, I then punched Collins’s name into a search engine and out jumped the number 3.6 like a common calculus function. That was Collins’s career points per game average over his 12 years in the league. His career high was 6.4 in 2005.
Needless to say, my enthusiasm was dampened after learning that. That free agency was going to prove to be a nasty issue with Collins trying to find his next team, I figured, because any homophobes in the NBA now had that pathetic points average to hide behind. I was right, and Collins was never signed to a new contract, and it’s hard to blame anyone for letting him go loose. A 3.6 career PPG average is so bad, it almost makes him a liability. If there had been a big coming out party for a transcendent superstar like Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose and they weren’t picked up, we would have known something fishy was going on.
Michael Sam is a first-round draft prospect for the NFL who recently came out of the closet. He’s going to try dipping his toe into the macho man’s land of the world’s most neanderthal sports league by walking into the NFL as its first openly gay player. The players’ reactions have been very welcoming. Steve Gleason called him a high-character guy. Jonathan Martin said what he did takes guts. Ross Tucker said he’s tired of hearing about hypotheticals regarding how players and fans would react and said it’s time to find out, and even Richie Incognito sent his well-wishes. So if Sam is going to become the gay Jackie Robinson, he’ll at least be setting foot into a warm welcome for an ironically hyper-masculine sport in which straight people regularly act like they’re doing things like groping, grabbing, and ass-patting, which would put one’s sexuality under scrutiny in a common nightclub. (No one blinks an eye at these things when the people doing it are wearing plastic pads and helmets, for some reason. I just thought that might be worth pointing out.)
Although the league is outwardly saying they want to embrace the Jackie Robinson story this time, Sam is still going to have a certain obstacle to get over: As of now, there’s a disappointing lack of a Branch Rickey on every team to sign him; a guy who has enough guts to say that one day, they’re going to stand before God and answer for their sins, and if God asks why they never let that gay man play football and they say ’cause he’s gay, they fear that might not be a good enough answer. 12 different general managers, coaches, and scouts have decided to hide behind anonymity to give weak explanations of why they’re never going to bring Sam onto their teams. The quotes I’ve read so far are trying to excuse their own homophobia by hiding behind everyone else’s. You know the ones: They’re the people who are claiming that they fear for Sam’s safety against everyone else in the league, saying he would be a distraction and claiming they would have drafted him ten years from now, when it would be more ideal. Other things I’ve read come off as emergency excuses from general managers and scouts who were raving about him at first, only to suddenly decide he wasn’t fast enough or big enough to make an impact in the league.
This from a sports league that drafted Rae Carruth; forgave Michael Vick; overlooked the Minnesota Vikings sex boat; and kept letting teams sign Lawrence Phillips. GMs regularly sign people with character issues and arrest records, so the excuse trotted out by numerous folks – including, notably, Herman Edwards – that Michael Sam would be a distraction aren’t going to fly. The New England Patriots had two giant distractions in the buildup to the 2013 season: Their star tight end was arrested for murder, and then they signed Tim Tebow. They still managed to win 12 games on their way to the AFC Championship game. One of their former players pointed out that if the Patriots can handle all that, a gay player wouldn’t be a problem, and that any team whining about a distraction is a terrible team anyway.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Michael Sam. He has no character issues, no arrest record, and his classmates with Missouri apparently knew he was gay. And if a sexual orientation is a character problem, then I’m Casanova. Missouri certainly didn’t seem to be having very many problems with Sam. They were the fifth-ranked team in the country, and Sam registered 11.5 sacks for them in the last season. He really is a perfect person to make the NFL put up or shut up. When you get at the opposing quarterback 11.5 times in a season on the way to a Cotton Bowl victory, people notice. He also made 123 tackles – 36 for loss – six forced fumbles, and six interceptions for his college career. Although Sam was never projected to be a first round draft pick, every draft board and mock draft had him being taken in the early rounds.
Last season, the San Diego Chargers drafted Manti Te’o, the Notre Dame player who played his heart out for a dying girlfriend that turned out to be a hoax. Te’o’s first season with the Bolts went by without controversy – you know, distraction – as he quietly made a solid 61 tackles in 13 starts. The weirdest hoax in the history of sports seems to be a thing of the past. So without the usual homophobic excuses to use against drafting Michael Sam, if he gets left on the board come draft day, I can’t wait to see every team executive on the planet trip over their tongues trying to explain why they decided not to take him.