Under The Bleachers: The Face Of The New NFL

Over the weekend at the NFL Draft, the 2013 SEC co-defensive players of the year were both drafted—CJ Mosley was picked 17th overall, Michael Sam 249th. Guess which player is openly gay. 

As big a step as it was for Michael Sam, the star defensive lineman for the University of Missouri who came out publicly in February, to be the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team, it’s almost embarrassing how it came to be.

Sam never quite had first-round-pick pedigree as a player, even after being recognized as the best defensive player in the most competitive division of U.S. college football. His combine numbers were disappointing and his physique didn’t quite fit the prototypical NFL positions—he’s considered short for a defensive end, but isn’t quite fast enough to be a linebacker. But he was still projected to go somewhere in the third or fourth round—before he announced publicly that he’s gay, that is.

The seventh and final round neared its end and still Sam hadn’t been drafted, until finally the St. Louis Rams—which, not coincidentally, play in the same state Sam has played in for the last four years—took him 249th. Seven players were picked after Sam; 248 were chosen ahead of him.

Every winner of the SEC defensive player award has been drafted, none lower than 142nd, and Sam was just the second winner to be drafted later than the second round. Say what you want about his size or speed or the quality of his play—if Sam became the first college football player to win that award and not be chosen by an NFL team, it would have been because of his sexuality.

That would have been both a tragedy and a travesty, of course. It could have emboldened those who insist the NFL and pro sports as a whole shouldn’t include gay players, it would have shown all 32 NFL general managers to be cowards, and it would have robbed a talented and deserving player of a monumental personal achievement.

But tragedy was averted, just barely, and those who support gay rights had the opportunity to enjoy the most heartwarming moment of the entire weekend. As Sam answered his phone, TV cameras trained on him, to learn he had been drafted, he broke down and wept. Then, as so many draftees have done before him, he turned and kissed his significant other.

The phone call and the kiss didn’t close a particular chapter in sports history. Much as we’d like to say it changed everything, Michael Sam has done something extraordinary, but he’s nowhere near finished. Very few minds were changed on Saturday—those who support him still support him and those who weren’t ready for change are largely still resistant to Sam’s presence. Sam has shown himself to be a remarkable college football player, but now he needs to be a remarkable NFL player—it could be the difference between an NFL that focuses on talent while dismissing sexual orientation and an NFL that continues to see a player’s sexuality as a “distraction.”

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