How are Jackie Robinson, Michael Phelps, and Dick Fosbury similar to Michael Sam? They did something “first” in the sports world. Robinson was the first black professional baseball player, Phelps was the first person to win eight gold medals in a single Olympics and Dick Fosbury was the first person to high jump differently and revolutionized the Olympics with his “Fosbury Flop” technique. There are countless more athletes that have done something first, but Sam is the first openly gay player in the National Football League. However, the double-edged sword that is the media will make his career interesting, to say the least.
Being the first openly gay player is an achievement, no doubt, but even getting to the NFL by any collegiate player would be a great achievement on its own. Sam did not make much of a splash at the NFL combine, despite being the Southeastern Conference co-defensive player of the year at Missouri. Even before he announced he was gay, analysts had Sam going anywhere in the later rounds to not even being drafted because he was undersized and not fast enough for the NFL. He was eventually drafted in the seventh round of the NFL draft last May and was pick number 249 out of 256 by the St. Louis Rams. After the draft ended, an openly gay player was in the NFL.
The Rams were in a tough spot because of the ensuing media attention that followed the team. It seems like common sense was lost the moment Sam was drafted. I don’t mean to be a buzz kill, but common sense and deductive reasoning tells us that anyone drafted in the seventh round (and the seventh to last pick) is most likely not going to make the final 53-man roster, the core group of players who will play the majority of the season. Despite this logic, some people were amazed that he did not make it past the final cuts. Despite being cut by the Rams, he was signed to the practice squad by the Dallas Cowboys just a few days later.
Why is this story such a big deal? The obvious answer is that he is the first openly gay player in arguably America’s favorite sport. Based on how the homosexual community has used the media to voice their opinion in the past few years, it should not surprise anyone that the gay community and media are rooting for Sam to succeed. It’s not a bad thing but, when it comes to playing sports for a living, the question is –can you play? Sam did not stand out enough in the preseason to earn a roster spot in the eyes of the Rams.
While Sam is a nice underdog story, the media is hurting his chances. Some people fail to realize that. Tony Dungy, an analyst for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” said that he would not take Sam, “not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it [the media attention.] It’s not going to be totally smooth . . . things will happen.” After his assessment was published, the media went after Dungy, thus proving his point about the media coverage; any criticism of Sam will be scrutinized.
Making it to the NFL is an accomplishment to be celebrated, but Michael Sam put a giant target on his back by announcing he is gay and the media is not doing him any favors, despite what people think. It will take an enormous effort to show a team that his skills outweigh his personal baggage, plus the media attention and apologists. It will take some time. Until then, there are 255 other players that are trying to make a roster spot as the season goes on without the media attention that Sam has.