Identity Politics, Coming to the NFL Draft
Good luck, Michael Sam.
Those of us who are sports fans are going to have a fascinating couple weeks ahead, as the national political and cultural media insists upon interpreting the events of the National Football League draft through the lens of identity politics. They will attempt to shoehorn events into a made-for-TV movie storyline about Michael Sam, defensive end for the University of Missouri, and aspiring NFL player.
Our media used to writing one kind of identity politics story: a person comes out of the closet and becomes the first openly-gay person to achieve a particular goal, gets saluted for bravery, is elevated to hero status, and then spends the next few years going to black-tie awards dinners and being the subject of overwrought documentaries.
Ellen DeGeneres represents a good, early example of this. She was a fairly successful comedienne back in the 1990s, excelling in stand-up with an awkward, nervous, why-did-I-just-say-that persona and starring in what was, in retrospect, painfully ironic romantic comedies like “Mr. Wrong.” She came out, her sitcom character of the same name did so shortly thereafter, and . . . no one remembers much after that, because the sitcom was never that good.
The Onion’s AV Club dissects the breakout episode, and notes in passing:
“The Puppy Episode” drew 42 million viewers and won a Peabody Award, but it also, in the short run, caused more turmoil than it solved. Ellen lost its identity as its storylines became dominated by gay issues, and was canceled the following year. . . . My husband and I were fans of DeGeneres’ comedy and had watched Ellen from the beginning; it was painful to watch her simultaneously stand up for herself and lose her way.
Ellen DeGeneres deserves all the success she’s enjoyed with her much more popular daytime talk show, but let’s not pretend that her old sitcom was ever particularly standout or a ratings smash.
You may recall Jason Collins was invited to the State of the Union, and you may recall references to “NBA star Jason Collins.” The term “journeyman” is more accurate, as he played for six teams, four since 2009. His career averages are 3.6 points per game, 3.8 rebounds per game, .9 assists per game, .5 steals per game. Undoubtedly, you have to have talent to play 12 seasons in the NBA and play 713 games in those seasons, starting about two-thirds of them. He averaged 20 minutes per game (an NBA game is 48 minutes). He’s good, but not a star. Collins was a free agent when he came out of the closet, and no team has signed him since. Some will insist that reflects league-wide homophobia, but that interpretation neglects the fact that age 35 is the end of the shelf life of an NBA center. But “journeyman NBA player discloses his sexual orientation at end of his career” is a less dramatic story, and so most of the media deemphasized those aspects of the story.
The NFL Draft comes with its own movie-ready drama. Unlike the Super Bowl or any other sports championship, the draft is a major annual event that involves every team, as
every almost every team has a first-round draft choice. (Sorry, Washington Redskins fans.) There’s a near-complete reversal of fortune, as the league’s worst team has the first and most consequential choice, making a selection that could ignite a quick turnaround back to respectability or be remembered as one of the all-time flops. Every fan of every team has a reason to tune in, to see who their team picks, hoping to have gotten a future star. The NFL draft is one of those rare high-drama sporting events with no real losers.
But there are indeed big winners. For the players, draft day is their real graduation day, where they stop practicing their craft to ensure the prosperity of a university and finally cash in on their years of effort with, in most circumstances, a multi-million dollar, multi-year contract. Guys who grew up with next to nothing bring their mothers and their whole families to New York City, where they learn where they’ll be living for the next few years, pursuing their dream of stardom. Genuine tears of joy flow. At age 20 or 21 or so, these young men have achieved their childhood dreams.
I suspect most fans’ biggest question about Michael Sam is, ‘if my team drafts him, how much better will our pass rush get?’ NFL fans care about the off-the-field behavior of their favorite team’s players to a certain degree; nobody likes rooting for a thug and a player prone to off-the-field trouble represents a higher risk of getting himself suspended or in legal trouble someday. But it’s hard to believe that NFL fans who can come to terms with a one-man population explosion at cornerback or shrug off drug busts, assault charges, DWIs, public intoxication, and all kinds of other misbehavior will stop rooting for a team with a gay defensive end.
A large chunk of the media will insist upon interpreting every triumph and setback for Michael Sam through the lens of his homosexuality and their belief that he’s a flashpoint in a battle between “tolerance” and “intolerance.” But the career of an NFL player can rise or fall on a thousand different factors and twists of fate. Do the coaches use him correctly? How complicated is the defensive system, and how quickly can he pick up the signals, terminology, and strategy? Is he in a system designed to showcase his natural skills, or are the coaches trying to use him in a new or different role that takes time to learn? How good are the other players on the team at his position? Does he twist an ankle or tear an ACL? Sam seems to have a good head on his shoulders, but how does he handle the pressures of being a professional athlete?
Nobody really knows the answers to any of these questions until the players put on uniforms and start playing. In 1998, coaches and scouts deemed two quarterbacks to be potential superstars. Peyton Manning lived up to all the hype and more; Ryan Leaf is remembered as one of the all-time flops. Fourteen of 20 general managers rated Leaf the more promising prospect.
Greg Bedard of Sports Illustrated watched game tapes of Sam and saw a player with definite potential for the NFL, but by no means a sure thing:
There’s no question that Sam had major production this season, as he led the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss (which includes sacks). This is probably why he was named SEC defensive player of the year by the media, and co-DPOY (with Alabama linebacker C. J. Mosley) by the coaches. However, you have to look at the circumstances of his production. Namely, most of it came in three games of a four-game stretch against inferior competition: Arkansas State (three sacks), Vanderbilt (three sacks) and Florida (three sacks). Sam had a total of a half-sack in his final six games, until he made a huge play on basically the final play of the Cotton Bowl . . .
So basically in his final five games plus 40 snaps against Oklahoma State — the best competition Sam faced all season — he had no splash plays. The right tackles he faced (as a left end he didn’t go against Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews, a projected top-10 pick) in that stretch were more of what he will see in the pros. The right tackles he beat up to gain his production likely wouldn’t be on NFL training-camp rosters. Four of his sacks came with lesser opponents desperate and behind by large margins in the fourth quarter, in obvious passing situations. In addition, Florida’s offensive line was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Lastly: Sam’s sack against South Carolina in overtime was on an unblocked stunt . . .
To me, Sam looked below average against the run. He can’t get off blocks when engaged, and I saw him get cut several times by offensive linemen. For that reason it’s tough to see him as a 4-3 end. Against Auburn, a premier team, Sam was often blocked, and effectively, by a fullback. That’s a bad sign if Sam is going to have to convert to standup linebacker in the NFL. Plus, rookies in the NFL most often have to be special-team stalwarts, and those are most often very good athletes. The marginal athleticism that I saw will be a problem in Sam’s fight to earn a roster spot.
Bedard concludes that while it’s possible some team sees more potential in Sam than he does, he thinks Sam grades out to a mid- to late-round pick, or he could go undrafted. (There are seven rounds of the NFL draft, and players who aren’t drafted are free to sign with any team that offers them a contract.)
If that scenario occurs, we’ll hear a lot about the rampant homophobia and culture of hate within the NFL — regardless of whether or not it reflects the facts of what actually happens.