By Danny O’Neil
Michael Sam’s selection in the seventh round of this year’s NFL draft was historic.
That’s about the only thing that can be stated definitively.
The fact that Sam was chosen in the seventh round is not proof that he was discriminated against nor is it evidence of how progressive and tolerant the NFL is.
When the Rams made Sam the 249th selection, it was not validation of how open-minded either the franchise or the league is just as the fact he was the eighth-to-last pick is not Exhibit A for the difficulties he will face.
Worse players have been drafted higher than Sam was, and better players have gone unchosen entirely, the result of an incredibly subjective, often unpredictable draft process that has been called a science but is really more like alchemy.
Anyone who points to his college statistics – which merited selection as the SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 – and shouts that he was criminally passed over is neglecting the fact that productive college players routinely fall to the nether regions of the draft or out of it entirely. Jackson Jeffcoat was a consensus All-American last season at Texas, recognized as the country’s top defensive end with the Ted Hendricks Award and he went undrafted, signing with the Seahawks as a free agent.
All those people praising the NFL – especially the analysts on TV Saturday – would be best served to pipe down, too. Getting drafted isn’t proof that his sexuality played no role in the selection process, either. If a team opted to take another player who it evaluated equal to Sam or even less because it feared either the reaction from players inside the locker room or the media coverage that would be scrutinizing the team, well, Sam was discriminated against, plain and simple.
Michael Sam wasn’t going to fit on certain teams, a fact that has nothing to do with his sexuality and everything to do with his size and speed. He wasn’t big enough to play defensive end for some teams, wasn’t fast enough to project as an outside pass rusher for a team like Seattle.
But anyone who says Sam’s selection was the unemotional result of the scouting process is ignoring the larger significance of this story, and the reason that there was an ESPN camera at his house documenting the day.
And anyone who thinks that Sam’s sexual orientation was an afterthought needs to consider the hostility that was expressed on Twitter by some after cameras showed Sam kissing his boyfriend upon learning of his selection. One player in the league – a Dolphins defensive back – used the adjective horrible in a Tweet that he subsequently deleted.
I thought the kiss was beautiful, a simple expression of affection that wouldn’t have warranted a second thought had it been a heterosexual couple. The fact that it caused even a ripple was proof that Sam’s selection in the seventh round on Saturday was just the beginning for both Sam’s professional career and the integration of an openly gay player into the country’s most popular sports league.
Sam has a chance now, but so do the Rams in particular and the league in general, and it’s too soon to offer any conclusions on whether Sam has received – or for that matter been denied – a truly equal opportunity.