Missouri spent a large portion in the first half of the 2010s making national news. From their basketball team playing in important games, to the football team playing for SEC Championships, to changing leagues, protests... you name it and it seemed to happen at Missouri.
But no story attracted national attention the way Michael Sam’s story did. Despite more and more acceptance of homosexuality in and around the rest of society, gay athletes still struggle to break through in the major professional sports. The current numbers of out (at least in public) athletes in Baseball, Hockey, Football, and Basketball is still zero. Most of the athletes who have come out have done so after their career is over. There are still a few, including Kansas State Offensive lineman Scott Franzi, who have come out before reaching the big leagues with hopes of making it to the top. But nobody has truly crossed the finish line, and until they do we still have a long way to go.
Michael Sam was different. He was an All American Defensive End, and the Defensive Player of the Year in the SEC. Early on he was projected as a fairly high draft pick. So when Sam’s announcement was made public, the news reverberated to every corner of the country. The New York Times spot below:
For a week or so in mid February of 2014, the white hot heat of the national spotlight shone directly on the campus at Missouri, and Columbia, the University, and it’s students did not disappoint. The chronically sh***y Westboro Baptist Church had to make an appearance, and Mizzou students dunked on them so hard it was beautiful.
Within a week after his announcement Sam was back on campus with the football team to celebrate the Cotton Bowl win during a basketball home game. Look at the crowd and the response to Sam:
Jack Peglow wrote this piece on how Sam might’ve been the perfect man to carry this burden:
Blazing your own trail is never easy. There were a myriad of obstacles that Sam had to overcome before he could come out publicly, and there will be countless more still to come as he prepares for life in the NFL. At some point, Sam must have wondered how the world would react. People are afraid of what they don’t understand, and he would’ve known that several anonymous Injustice League sources would reject him out of fear. Luckily, no one could’ve been more prepared. Sam had been overcoming challenges his entire life. He’s well-equipped to handle adversity when it comes knocking. That’s why he decided to share the secret that his teammates, coaches, and many of his fellow students already knew with the rest of the population. Sam didn’t know if he could trust the public to handle who he was, but his story was going to be told and he wanted to tell it on his own terms. Sometimes, you have to take the leap of faith first. The trust will come later.
Then from Bill’s piece about Sam:
A college football team has 85 scholarship players, a hefty number of walk-ons, and a giant coaching and support staff. The diversity of political and religious beliefs on a football team spans from one extreme to another. The Missouri football team and all of its divergent pieces rallied around Michael Sam, played beside him, showered with him, and went to battle with him every Saturday last fall. Most of us had no idea about Sam’s sexuality; all we knew was that this team had better chemistry than just about any in Missouri’s history.
Elvis Fisher (tweet above) is, per his Twitter exploits, a pretty hardcore Republican. I’m almost positive Gary Pinkel is, too. (Hell, so is SI’s Andy Staples, for that matter. See this and this tweet for why I bring that up.) Rural or urban, Republican or Democrat, Christian or non, the team embraced Michael Sam. Our community, and the Mizzou community as a whole, has no excuse for not doing the same.
(And by the way, a tweet from Eric Waters last night shows us that there’s nothing easy about any of this. There’s no such thing as 100% unity. But whatever struggles people were going through behind the scenes, the chemistry this team showed publicly, both on the field and last night, was an achievement.)
Michael Sam is a True Son, one of the greatest in the history of Missouri Football, and last night he quite possibly did more good for himself, the Missouri program, and the LGBT community than he ever did on the football field. This is a very good day to be a Missouri fan and/or alum, and I really, really hope that we can all see that no matter our political or religious beliefs. If the team can, we can. One day announcements like this won’t be a big deal; today, it is a huge deal.
Much of the football community tried to move on to a place where Sam was just a normal football player. While he was fairly dominant his final season, the reality of Sam was that he was a high energy, high effort, tweener at Defensive End. His performance at the Senior Bowl and in the scouting combine proved as much. He fell from a 2nd or 3rd round projection towards the 5th through undrafted projection.
He finally found a home at the tail end of the 7th round, with the St. Louis Rams.
Cyd Zielger at Outsports.com has done an incredible job of following and detailing the entire story. If you haven’t read any of Cyd’s content, I highly recommend it. He chronicles the very difficult lives and decisions of professional and amateur athletes and their struggle with being who they are where the spotlight is brightest. He followed Sam from the beginning, and has provided key follow ups with each step.
The summer he was drafted, Sam won the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. It was a tremendous honor, but brought with it the usual bile LGTBQ people have to deal with, therefore proving why he had earned the award.
Post announcement there was hope a lot would change, but as Sam’s difficult path would show, the NFL continues to be monumentally archaic in its approach to supporting their own players. There are legitimate football reasons why Sam wouldn’t make it onto a roster full time or long term. But there just aren’t as many why he didn’t ever get another shot.
The NFL is the least user-friendly league in sports, milking you dry and taking advantage of your fandom instead of building it. Michael Sam’s draft experience suggested that it isn’t particularly friendly to human beings either. There were still 248 picks that preceded the Rams’ selection. All 32 teams found excuses. Even the Rams passed on him multiple times. Some picked defensive ends from Marist, Illinois State, and Concordia. Some said he didn’t fit their system because he was a 3-4 OLB, and they run a 4-3. Some said he didn’t fit their system because he was a 4-3 DE, and they run a 3-4. Some said they had concerns because his big games came against lesser teams. (And they were still bigger than the biggest games posted by the defensive ends from Marist, Illinois State, and Concordia, I’m guessing.) They called him stiff and slow. They made excuse after reprehensible excuse.
Everyone’s worst fears about how Michael Sam would be viewed turned out to be true, and that didn’t change when the Rams finally did the deed. I more-or-less gave up on the NFL a long time ago when I realized I didn’t really enjoy the product and hated the way the league treated its fans, and the last three days made me feel pretty good about that sub-conscious decision.
After Sam was released by St. Louis, he caught on briefly with Dallas, but only on the practice squad. After that he didn’t get another tryout. Again, realizing Sam lacked in some key areas, it still doesn’t make sense. If you watched him in the preseason on a team with a lot of help at Defensive End, he outplayed the guy who made the team before him, Ethan Westbrooks. It was a disappointing end to a tremendous story.
Sam has since been on Dancing with the Stars, and carved out a role for himself as a motivational speaker. What a wild ride it’s been.