In May, University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam became the most highly publicized and intensely scrutinized seventh-round draft pick in NFL history with his selection by the St. Louis Rams. The brightness of the spotlight had little to do with how Sam plays football. It had everything to do with his status as the league’s first openly gay player.
The questions already were being asked, even before Sam was drafted, about how he would fit into a locker room environment in the most violent, stereotypically macho of all professional sports.
Amid all of the attention, Sam’s story is now approaching the next watershed moment, one that surfaces questions that will resonate far beyond the St. Louis locker room: What if Sam doesn’t make the Rams roster? What happens if he is cut?
Like any seventh-round draft pick, Sam is far from a lock to start the season as one of the 53 names on the Rams’ active roster. His attempt to survive cut-down day is further complicated by the Rams’ talent-rich corps of defensive linemen, led by Robert Quinn and Chris Long. But while he may fall short of securing a roster spot when rosters are trimmed for the final time Aug. 30, from a certain perspective, Sam may have already succeeded. By turning a media frenzy into business-as-usual, by fixing the preseason narrative solely on Michael Sam the football player, both Sam and the Rams have already earned an important victory for sporting social rights.
Coming out and breaking in
Sam’s pre-draft announcement in February about his sexuality generated an avalanche of media coverage. He was a center of attention soon thereafter at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. The issue of whether he would be drafted or not was examined exhaustively. The Rams’ decision to make him the 249th of the 256 players chosen in May’s draft created another coverage flashpoint.
Since being drafted, Sam has kept a fairly low profile. After his representatives met with the Rams following the draft, a planned documentary series with The Oprah Winfrey Network was postponed. His public comments during training camp and the preseason have been relatively infrequent.
The Rams, who declined to make members of the team’s front office available for this story, faced dealing with the Sam situation at a time when the NFL is particularly attentive to locker room conduct in the wake of last season’s bullying scandal involving Miami Dolphins players. The Rams made sure to educate their players. Wade Davis, a former NFL defensive back whose announcement that he is gay came after his playing career ended, addressed Rams players and others in the organization at the invitation of Coach Jeff Fisher, once Davis’s coach in Tennessee.
“He brought me in and said, ‘I want you to have a very honest conversation with our guys,’ ” Davis said in a telephone interview last week. “He was ahead of it. He was proactive and not reactive. I told Coach Fisher, ‘You may have a player or two who’s uncomfortable with this. That player or two deserves to have a voice.’ ”
Davis had NFL stints with the Washington Redskins, Titans and Seattle Seahawks. He is now executive director of the You Can Play Project, which promotes equality in sports regardless of sexual orientation.
“The very first question I got [from a player] was, ‘How do we make Michael Sam comfortable here?’ There are some players who don’t know how to interact with a gay person,” said Davis, who was also among those who advised Sam prior to his public announcement. “My message was to treat him like you would anyone else. I said, ‘You can call him an a—— if he’s being an a——.’ With any athlete, as soon as you can joke with him or tease him, that makes him comfortable. This is not Michael Sam’s first time in a team setting. He’s not looking to run to the principal’s office and tell on anyone who says the wrong thing around him.”
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In fact, he hasn’t been prone to say much at all, despite his recent prominent status as a social rights pioneer. Midway through the NFL’s preseason, Sam and the Rams have managed to turn down the volume on his amplified profile. His transition into the culture of pro football has been, by all accounts, seamless to this point. The story has become about a young player trying to make a team’s season-opening roster.
“He went to exactly the right place,” said Bill Polian, a prominent former NFL front office executive with the Indianapolis Colts, Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills. “He’s not a novelty there. He was drafted onto a team with a stellar defensive line. He’s an afterthought. He’s not Johnny [Manziel, the closely-watched Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback], where every move he makes is all over every media outlet in sight. He’s just a guy fighting to make the team.”
‘If he doesn’t play well, I know Coach Fisher will do what he has to do.’
Sam faces the typical numbers crunch at the end of the preseason as he tries to secure one of the final spots on the roster. Some accounts have portrayed him as possibly vying with fellow young defensive linemen Ethan Westbrooks and Sammy Brown for a single roster spot. Polian said if the Rams use Sam extensively on special teams in Saturday’s third of four preseason games at Cleveland, it could be a sign that he’s well positioned to make the roster.
“What I’ve seen so far is about what I saw in college,” Polian said. “He’s got great effort. He’s pretty tough. He has a pretty good bull rush. He’s got pretty good quickness. I think whether he makes the team or not depends on how he does on special teams. One indicator this weekend will be how much you see him playing on special teams. That will tell you what they’re thinking. But we’re not there yet. You’ve got two more games to see.”
Sam, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 261 pounds, recorded a fourth-quarter sack of Green Bay backup quarterback Matt Flynn in the Rams’ second preseason game last Saturday, long after Packers starter Aaron Rodgers and other first-team players had exited.
“I watched the game last weekend,” former Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said. “To me, he looked exactly like he looked in college. Now, it’s too early to tell, really. He’s playing against backups. But he’s a high-motor guy. He hustles. He makes plays on effort. He’s an undersized guy for the position. He doesn’t have counter-moves.
“In college, when he played against [offensive] tackles who were NFL prospects, they generally shut him out. His production came against other guys. To me, he looks exactly like a sixth- or seventh-round pick in the draft should look. It’s just too early to say anything definitive.”
Davis said he is fully confident that the Rams’ decision about Sam making the team will be based solely on football considerations and Sam’s merits as a player.
“There are very few things I am certain of,” Davis said. “But I am certain Coach Fisher is a man of high integrity, and [Rams General Manager] Les Snead also. I don’t believe they brought him in as a political statement. I believe they brought him in because they believe he deserves a chance.
“If you watch the tape from that first [preseason] game, you saw him make some good plays, and you saw him make some rookie mistakes. But you saw he can play on this level. You couldn’t look at that tape and say he didn’t belong on the field. If he doesn’t play well, I know Coach Fisher will do what he has to do because he has a responsibility to the team and to the other players. He doesn’t just have a responsibility to Michael Sam. And Michael Sam doesn’t want to be a charity case.”
While the amount by which Sam’s social importance exceeds his NFL playing stature is unusually large, teams fairly regularly deal with situations in which a player’s popularity with fans or other considerations complicate decisions. Casserly said it happens routinely with players selected early in the draft.
“The problem comes if a guy makes the team and the sense is he didn’t make it because he earned it,” Casserly said. “You’re undercutting your credibility in the locker room if that happens.
“When you make the decision, you just have to weigh what’s right for your team. A lot of times when you get down to the last couple roster spots, it’s so close anyway and you just ask yourself: Did the guy earn it? In the game Saturday, [Sam] hustled and he looked like a late-round pick should look. So let’s see some more.”
The next chapter
The attention is certain to intensify once more when the Rams decide before the NFL regular season begins next month whether to keep Sam on their 53-man roster or release him. That won’t be the final word on Sam’s NFL future. Players who make the roster can be cut at any time. And even if he’s released before the season, he could be signed by another team or re-signed to the Rams’ practice squad, which would leave him eligible to practice but not play in games. He also could be signed to another team’s practice squad if cut by the Rams.
The league and the NFL Players Association announced Monday that they’d agreed to expand practice squads from eight to 10 players per team over the next two seasons. That created 64 additional jobs league-wide and potentially could help someone in Sam’s position. But if Sam ultimately doesn’t stick with the Rams, his impact has already been felt.
“There are so many myths being debunked along the way,” Davis said. “There haven’t been any issues. If there were, we would have heard about them.
“From my own individual experience with the players there, it’s been a learning experience and a deconstruction of what their expectations were about playing with an openly gay player,” Davis added. “They have found that he’s no different than anyone else, other than they know he’s gay. His personal life is his personal life, and he’s a football player who’s there to try to make the team.”