The SEC is all about football. If you play hard and win games, fans don’t care about anything else. That’s not the case when it comes to the NFL. Professional football has degenerated into an extended soap opera where players are “storylines” and the emphasis is often placed on everything except what takes place on the field.
Consider the recent announcement by former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam that he’s gay. Sam, the SEC’s defensive player of the year last season, came out to his coaches and teammates several months ago. It was no big deal. Missouri did not try to exploit Sam for media approval. Tigers Coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement, “We discussed how to deal with [Sam's coming out] from a public standpoint, and ultimately Michael decided that he didn’t want that to be the focal point of the season.” And that was the right call. The dating habits and personal life of a single player are irrelevant in the context of building a winning football team.
But in the NFL, it seems that every aspect of a player’s life is the intellectual property of the league and its thousands of media sycophants. Even an NFL Draft prospect like Sam knows this, which is why he felt compelled to get ahead of the story and confirm his sexual identity. Cyd Ziegler, writing for the gay sports blog Outsports, provided the details of what led Sam to make his announcement. According to Ziegler, Sam’s agents said NFL employees were already poking their noses into their client’s bedroom habits at league-sanctioned events:
“At the Senior Bowl, it was the first question I got from the scouts almost every time,” [Sam agent Joe] Barkett said. He didn’t feel there was an agenda behind the question other than trying to determine if the word on the Internet was true. “They would ask about spending time with him, were there girls around? Who is his girlfriend? They didn’t ask that about another client, Tom Hornsey. They only asked it about Michael.”
This lack of professionalism is appalling. And it’s only continued following Sam’s announcement. Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans of Sports Illustrated cited a number of NFL executives—anonymously, of course—who claimed Sam has hurt his draft prospects:
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
All the NFL personnel members interviewed believed that Sam’s announcement will cause him to drop in the draft. He was projected between the third and seventh rounds prior to the announcement. The question is: How far will he fall?
Somehow the presence of an openly gay player didn’t create a “chemical imbalance” in Missouri’s locker room, as the Tigers reached the SEC championship game for the first time and Sam had a breakout season. As for Sam’s alleged draft position, it’s important to remember all these “draft boards” people concoct have no real value. They’re just storylines fabricated by the media to cope with the lull between the Super Bowl and the Draft itself.
It’s also impossible to assess whether the NFL employees who spoke to Thamel and Evans weren’t deliberately trying to sabotage Sam’s draft status. Mike Florio, the preeminent NFL gossip for NBC Sports, pointed out there’s nothing new about anonymous sources trashing players they secretly covet:
One thing we’ve learned in the last 13 years of covering drafts is that teams that like a player will be tempted to say bad things about him in the hopes that he’ll fall — and that teams that don’t like a guy will be tempted to say good things in the hopes that another team will use a pick on the player, pushing others farther down the board.
This, again, emphasizes how far removed the NFL has become from actual football. It’s all about playing dishonest little mind games through the press. This is encouraged by sweeping proclamations by the NFL about policing “personal player conduct” while doing nothing to rein in scouts and general managers who pry into the intimate details of mere prospects.
College football, of course, operates in a much different universe. Missouri, like almost every major state university, enforces strict anti-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation as a protected class. Federal law further protects the privacy rights of student-athletes. Thankfully college football remains more civilized—and, yes, progressive—when it comes to dealing with players like Michael Sam.