Michael Sam, the first openly gay player ever to enter the National Football League draft, was taken by the St. Louis Rams with the 249th pick of the draft Saturday, proving precisely nothing about the state of homophobia in professional football.
Only one thing can be said with certainty: By taking Sam with the eighth-to-last pick of the seven-round draft, the St. Louis Rams saved the NFL a small public-relations nightmare.
Had he not been drafted, many questions would have been asked, most of them uncomfortable.
How could Sam, who was co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference – without question the top college football conference in the country – not even get drafted? How could a unanimous first-team All-American not be among the 256 players chosen by NFL teams? In an era when rushing the quarterback is perhaps the single most important defensive skill, why was someone with 11-1/2 sacks completely ignored?
Those questions have been avoided, though barely. Instead, different sorts of question have emerged: Why did it take so long for Sam to get drafted? Given that most seventh-round picks are largely throwaways, did the Rams draft Sam simply to save face for the league?
And, most poignantly, did 31 other teams want to avoid the image that came after Sam was finally drafted, when he kissed his boyfriend on live television?
The only people who know the answers to these questions are the people in the personnel departments of the NFL's 32 teams. Any other speculation is just that, because, despite his pedigree, Sam was a marginal draft prospect.
Had Sam been seen a can't-miss NFL star – someone who could change the shape of a defense – teams could not have avoided taking him. But most agree that his stock was hurt at least as much by his poor performances in the scouting combines and pro days as by his coming out.
Even before the scouting events, Sam's limitations were known: "He's tight, he's stiff, and he's short. He's got a lot going against him," one scout told USA Today. What he does have is enormous heart and drive. "He's relentless, and players like that – they can make things happen just with their will alone."
But NFL scouts are often numbers men. They like "tangibles": 40-yard dash times, bench press reps, vertical leap. What you did in college is almost a secondary factor. The reason? In football, the leap from college to pro means going from playing against boys to men. As we are seeing with increasing clarity, the NFL is a brutal league, and success in college is no guarantee of success in the pros. To survive – to thrive – you need to be fast, big, and strong.
By all these measures, Sam added to scouts' reservations by doing very poorly in the scouting combine. His pro day was better, but hardly overwhelming.
Before these scouting appearances, he was projected as a fourth-round pick, notes Nate Silver of ESPN's FiveThirtyEight blog. Afterward, he was projected for the sixth round. Sixth-round prospects like Sam have a 50-50 chance of getting drafted, Silver found in a data analysis.
Was the drop because of his performances or because he had come out as gay?
We don't know, but his scouting performances could certainly have justified the drop. On the other hand, those performances might simply have given teams the cover they wanted to avoid drafting a gay player. In a fascinating story written shortly after Sam announced that he is gay, Sports Illustrated found that several NFL executives and coaches said that Sam's sexuality would hurt his draft stock.
One NFL player personnel assistant said that NFL was not ready for a gay player: "It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
There were hints of that when Miami Dolphins player Don Jones tweeted "OMG" and "horrible" in reaction to Sam's on-screen kiss Saturday. The tweets were soon deleted. But the Dolphins were at the center of a scandal last year when one of their players, Jonathan Martin, left the team, saying he was bullied by teammates because he wasn't seen as being tough enough.
That points to another potential concern among NFL executives. Sam would likely bring a media circus to training camp, and would that "distraction" be worth it for a lower-tier prospect? After all, no other drafted player got a statement of congratulations from President Obama.
"Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from 'Good Housekeeping' to the 'Today' show," said a former general manager in the Sports Illustrated story. "A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?' "
In the end, many analysts say Sam ended up in perhaps the perfect place. The Rams are not far from where Sam played in college, the University of Missouri, so fans in the region have already accepted him. Moreover, Rams coach Jeff Fisher is an old-school coach who will likely be able to keep "distractions" to a minimum. And Sam appears to be Fisher's type of player, writes Jeffri Chadiha of ESPN.
"Sam is a player who thrives because of his heart and will, a desire to outwork the competition. Fisher has long had affection for such players, and that's probably how Sam won him over."
Back in 1946, the Rams signed Kenny Washington, the first African-American football player in the modern era of the NFL. Fisher was aware of the historical resonance Saturday.
"This is the second historic moment in the history of this franchise," he said. "From that standpoint, from a historic standpoint, I'm honored to be a part of that."