Sports

The Quick Rise and Quicker Fall of Michael Sam

Michael Sam talks to the media following his first day of rookie training camp for the Montreal Alouettes CFL football team in Sherbrooke, Quebec, May 27, 2015. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)
The media’s quest for the perfect narrative, and Sam’s ephemeral starring role in this one, speak to a toxic aspect of identity politics.

The annual National Football League draft is a reminder of perhaps the prototypical example of our media’s desire for a perfect narrative over what is actually happening before them — the lightning-fast rise, and equally speedy fall, of Michael Sam.

For a few months in 2014, Sam — the first openly gay athlete selected in the NFL draft — was one of the biggest names in the sports world. ESPN gave him the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, he was a finalist for Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, and he was one of GQ’s Men of the Year. When he was drafted by the then-St. Louis Rams, President Obama issued a statement declaring it “an important step forward in our Nation’s journey.” Shortly after the draft, Sam’s jersey became the second-highest-selling one in the league, after . . . er, Johnny Manziel.

The reason you probably don’t remember much about Sam on the football field is because he never played a single snap in a regular-season game in the NFL. The Rams drafted him in the seventh round, the 249th of 256 players. Sam played a little in preseason, then the Rams released him before the season started. The Dallas Cowboys signed him to their practice squad — extra spots for players who practice with the team but do not participate in games. A few weeks later, the Cowboys released Sam from the practice squad, and that was the end of his career in the NFL. The only photos you can find of him playing in an NFL uniform are from meaningless preseason games. Sam did sign with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League and make the roster, but he played in only one game before quitting the team.

The problems with Sam on the field were there for anyone who watched him closely.

Before Sam was drafted, Greg Bedard of Sports Illustrated watched game tapes of Sam playing college football at Missouri and concluded that, while Sam played hard and made some big plays, he would have difficulty transitioning to the NFL:

Sam was a good player for one season in college. He was productive, so the accolades he received were earned. But being a good college player and becoming a good NFL player are two different things (see Tim Tebow). Sam did well for Missouri with a lot of talent around him. A majority of his production came in three games against inferior competition without a need to show much of a pass-rushing repertoire. He doesn’t show much of what the NFL looks for on special teams, and it’s difficult to project a position for him on the next level. For those reasons, Sam would project to be no better than a mid- to late-round pick. He could go undrafted. To my eyes Sam is decidedly average, with nothing exceptional about his game — though he will be helped by the fact that this draft is not deep with pass rushers, and those are always needed.

There’s no particular shame in Sam only briefly appearing on an NFL team’s roster. Lots of players who excel at the college level never make the jump to the pros. Playing and breaking into the starting lineup of an NFL team is really difficult. But the expectations for Sam were off the charts. Some of that might be his fault; before getting drafted, Sam had been in talks with Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network to create a documentary series chronicling his life in professional athletics — something the Rams didn’t know when they drafted him. Sam at least had the good sense to drop plans for the series after a discussion with the team. But the white-hot spotlight probably didn’t help him in those consequential first moments of his career.

In 2015, as Sam prepared for a usually little-noticed event called the Veteran Combine — an organized workout for cut players looking for another shot with a team — Bleacher Report’s Mike Tanier contended that all of the media attention designed to celebrate Sam was hurting him. He was a marginal, bottom-of-the-roster player who brought superstar media scrutiny with him. Tanier predicted Sam would get “passed up in favor of some anonymous defensive ends with roughly similar resumes. If only we had kept our mouths shut. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We can only defy it by keeping quiet and adopting a ‘no biggie’ attitude toward Sam’s comeback. You and I are Sam’s biggest problem right now. If we treat him like just another guy, maybe the NFL will, too.”

Many, many people in both the national media and sports-media world wanted Sam to be the next Jackie Robinson — to not merely break a metaphorical barrier, but to be a superlative star in the game. That was probably always an unreasonable expectation.

And then there was the heavy cloud of identity politics floating over Sam, and the knee-jerk accusations at those who evaluated him. More than a few folks insisted that Sam’s not getting drafted until the seventh round, and getting cut by the Rams, was the result of homophobia. The Guardian contended that by coming out, Sam had dramatically lowered teams’ interest in drafting him.

Those arguments look ludicrous in retrospect. By professional standards, Sam just wasn’t that good. Put very simply, he was too small to be a defensive end and too slow to be a linebacker. That has nothing to do with Sam’s personal relationships.

To believe homophobia was the driving force behind his short career, you have to believe that every NFL general manager and coach prioritized keeping a gay player out of the league over having a good defense.

By August 2015, after Sam departed the Montreal Alouettes, Kate Fagan at ESPN could acknowledge what had been fairly clear all along: Sam had a lot of interests outside of football, and being a professional-quality athlete just wasn’t high enough among his priorities.

He performed poorly at the rookie combine. He was run ragged making media and commercial appearances in the months leading up to, and after, the 2014 NFL draft. At the NFL’s veteran combine, in March, Sam ran a 5.07 in the 40-yard dash, killing his short-term NFL chances. The team of advisors around him jumped at every contract placed in front of them, including appearing on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” which ended only one month before Sam signed with the Alouettes.

Sam was a football player who never appeared ready to play football. Everyone around him seemed to have many different interests — and too few involved the game itself.

Fagan acknowledged an ironic truth: “Being a gay athlete is hard. But the thing too few people are talking about is that the biggest hurdle isn’t winning over teammates and coaches inside the locker room. It’s keeping the crush of requests — many of them from LGBT-friendly organizations wanting to champion the athlete — from becoming a distraction.” There was so much insistence that Sam had to be the next Jackie Robinson that he couldn’t be the first Michael Sam — a gay man who was drafted near the end of the NFL draft, was just good enough to make his team’s roster, and worked as a backup. That kind of career wouldn’t have been glamorous but would represent a breakthrough achievement, nonetheless.

The quick rise and quick fall of Michael Sam illuminates the distressing trend of the media — not just sports media, but all media — seeing the narrative they prefer to see instead of the reality in front of them.

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