by Jack Bechta
February 12, 02014
I never met Michael Sam, nor did I try to recruit him. I did have one regional scout tell me there was a gay football player at Missouri. He told me this in late September of 2013. It was Sam. If he knew, many other scouts knew as well.
The Michael Sam story is fluid because it won't die down until we see if he is drafted or not, what city takes him in, how his teammates accept him, how fans treat him and how much media exposure will follow him. And most of all, what kind of football player he is at the pro level and what accomplishments he has on the field.
I pretty much have read, watched and listened to just about everything to date that has been said about Mr. Sam and his future. He is courageous young man and I personally applaud him.
Public vs. Private
So right now 99% of all owners, current/former players, media, GMs, scouts, and coaches are all going to say and have said all the right things when asked. Everybody will say and has said publicly that he would be accepted on their team, judged by his football skills only for the draft and will make their team based on his abilities. But privately they may be thinking very differently.
Here’s the reality of Mr. Sam’s journey and how it will most likely unfold in private.
Front office execs (GMs, coaches, presidents, and owners): Initially, they will place Mr. Sam on their draft board based on his talent (i.e. draft value to team, scheme and need). However, conversations about how his sexual preference and how it will affect the team/locker-room will be discussed in private by only a very few decision-makers. In some cases, he won’t be discussed at all if the evaluators already have their minds made up about passing on him.
I believe most GMs will give some serious personal thought as to how their team and even their own job will be affected by having Mr. Sam drafted to their team. Eventually, if they have to cut Mr. Sam, they may wonder if they will have to defend themselves against the media who potentially could accuse the GM of cutting him because he is gay. Additionally, are the GM and/or head coach ready for the media circus that Mr. Sam could possibly attract (think Tim Tebow)? Can having him on my team be a distraction? These are the questions that will be privately pondered and internally discussed.
How Current Players may react privately: Although publicly most players are saying all the right things, Ryan Clark of the Steelers brought up a good point about what goes down in the locker-room. Ryan wants to know where the lines will be with Mr. Sam in his locker-room. He said, “What are the things you can do and say around him that won't make him uncomfortable?”
Other questions players will privately ask themselves (and each other): Will I shower when he is showering? Will I sit next to him on the plane? Will I room with him during camp for 3 weeks? Will I room with him for away games? Do I want my locker next to his? Will I be comfortable naked around him? Although there are plenty of evolved renaissance men currently in the NFL who are comfortable in their own skin, I believe most will still answer “NO” to these player questions. So now this brings us back to the coaches and front office. They now have to ask themselves, “Do we treat Mr. Sam differently from the entire team? Do we give him his own room for camp and away games (some teams do anyway)? Most execs and coaches don’t want to deal with these issues.
Do they even want to deal with having to make these decisions? Most likely not, it’s easier to just move on to the next player. Unfortunately, I believe that’s what will happen in most draft rooms come May. This is unfortunate because I believe NFL players will rally around Mr. Sam if he is a solid teammate, player and keeps his personal life out of the locker-room. I fear he may not get that chance in 32 war rooms
The Media: The media wants Michael Sam to be drafted and drafted high. They want to follow this story, create new wrinkles to it, get reactions from it and monitor the players, coaches and owner who eventually drafts or signs him as a free agent. My fear for Mr. Sam is that, for most team execs, he may be too much of a hot potato for most front offices to want to deal with. My fear for the league and their respective team evaluators is that if Mr. Sam is not drafted and even eventually cut, the media will make them (NFL front offices) out to be small-minded bigots.
In discussing this situation with one top evaluator he said this, “If the guy can help our team and can show the emotional maturity to keep his private life private, I will draft him. However, I am not going to spend more time on him than I will any other player in the draft. How he handles himself these next few months is a big test. We’ll watch and see how he does.” Another regional evaluator told me that he has him ranked as a late round to free agent type and the media may be the guy’s worst enemy right now. He said this, “If I push to draft or sign this guy, my boss will want to know if the media parade comes with him? I don’t want it for a later pick but I may deal with it for a special player.”
The football world is going to have both a private and public opinion of Michael Sam.
If I were advising Mr. Sam I would have him address the media prior to the Combine outside of the NFL. I would have him answer every question and exhaust their concerns and curiosities. I would not ask for any special treatment from the Combine or the NFL. I would have him ask the media to be treated like any other draft pick. If he can own this process the next few months, he will help to convince teams that he’s not interested in the media attention and doesn’t want to and won’t bring it with him to his new team.
The owner mandate:
The Eagles could have never signed Michael Vick, after he was released from Jail, without the complete backing of owner Jeffrey Laurie. As some GMs and Head Coaches have autonomy on all football decisions, nobody is going to pull the trigger without consulting their owner in private. The only GM who can ride this solo is Ted Thompson because the Packers don’t have an owner. Seahawks Pete Carroll and John Schneider can sign off on their own but would ask anyway. Andy Reid and Bill Belichick can probably pull it off without going to their owners. As could Thomas Dimitroff in Atlanta, as his owner is open minded. Many other decision makers will not dare go alone on the decision of drafting Mr. Sam. I am just stating the reality based on my experience and conversations with NFL execs.
Now the flip side of this situation is that an owner may want to push for the drafting of Mr. Sam for some national/international marketing attention and/or to garner some social credibility. Many owners have already publicly applauded Mr. Sam’s courage but I doubt they will promote picking him on draft day. However, I do believe a small few will encourage their evaluators to completely ignore Michael’s sexual preferences and treat him fairly and not to be afraid to pull the trigger. Basically the owner is saying, “I will support you if you draft him and I have your back if something goes wrong”. Most GMs will want to hear this.
The Incognito/Martin effect: The chapter is not closed yet on this story as it’s still unfolding. The situation gave us a raw look inside the locker-room culture of football where slurs are used frequently in gest. Dolphins GM Jeff Ireland is gone as are some of their coaches, most likely due to this situation.
I’m afraid that the issues and details that arose in the discovery of this situation won’t help Mr. Sam. It’s still very fresh, fluid and everybody still has a bad taste in their mouth from it. We learned that perhaps most locker rooms don’t have the maturity to handle cultural and personal differences. The locker-room chemistry is an important part of building and maintaining a successful organization.
Those decision makers who feel they have a mature and cohesive locker-room may welcome Mr. Sam. Unfortunately, locker rooms have problems and most teams have yet to anoint their own as responsible enough to handle the situation.
I guestimate that there are about 25 to 35 gay players currently in the league, and most of their teammates suspect they may be gay but for the most part treat them respectfully. Regardless of what happens in the long run with Mr. Sam, in the short-term, the NFL will evolve positively forward because of his openness, honesty and courage.
Follow me on Twitter: @Jackbechta