You can say one thing for Missouri defensive end Michael Sam… he probably drove up the ratings for the NFL draft on ESPN well beyond the normal collection of football freaks and geeks (read: “me”) who usually sit and watch it. And in the end – pretty much at the very end – he was selected in the 7th round by the Rams. By this point you’ve probably seen all the headlines and endlessly running clips on cable news, most of which had nothing to do with his gridiron prowess or prospects and everything to do with the fact that he kissed his boyfriend on live television.
That’s just super. I’m sure we’re all very happy for both of you. Now, if you don’t mind getting down to the prickly questions which should actually matter… what happens next, both for Sam and for his new team in St. Louis?
In all the excitement about (cue the band) the first openly gay player in the NFL it remains to be seen not only whether Michael Sam will prove to be a star in the NFL, but if he’ll even play at all. The answer to that question has nothing to do with the gender of who he’s kissing and everything to do with history. The fact is that no matter how much the media or the fans or the LGBT community or whoever are in love with you, the Rams are a business. And their business is winning games. You don’t get a pass for being unique unless that uniqueness comes in the form of destroying opposing quarterbacks, runners and receivers.
Going in the 7th round does not portend well, even before the cameras are shut off from the last interview. Sam was a very good player at Missouri. He may have been great. But that makes you a great college player. Each year there are roughly 9,000 college football players in contention. Of those, a grand total of just over 300 get invited to the combine to be evaluated by NFL scouts. Those who do well enough there may indeed be picked up during the draft. But as I noted above, Sam went in the 7th round. From 2010 to 2012, 78% of 1st round picks went on to a starting or durable position with an NFL team. For those in the second round, the number dropped to just over half. Of those drafted in the 7th round just 8% could make the same claim.
The individual stats coming out of the combine don’t look like a sure fire ticket to the top either. Bleacher Report provided a detailed analysis of Sam’s combine performance before the draft even began, and while he’s still head and shoulders above 99% of all college players, they were not impressed at how he stacked up against the most likely 1st and 2nd round draft prospects. His time in the 40 was slower than some of the linebackers (a position which he’s seen as a bit too small for), say nothing of the defensive ends. He struggled with reps on the weight bench. Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk summed it up this way on Twitter:
My view on Michael Sam: Inspiring person, mediocre-at-best prospect.
— Michael David Smith (@MichaelDavSmith) May 7, 2014
So why is this a potential problem for the Rams and not just Sam?
Look… it’s still possible that Sam will shock the world and shine like a supernova when he’s tossed into battle against the cream of the NFL crop. And I wish him the best, along with all the other young athletes dreaming the big dream of gridiron glory. But looking at the stats above, it’s not hard to imagine that if this guy were any other regular player coming out of the college ranks, nobody would exactly faint from shock if he wound up without a team on opening day this fall. Like many, many other young hopefuls, the chance is not only real but fairly high that he might not make the cut and the Rams will have to turn him loose to free agency, where his prospects may not look much better. But now he’s captured media lightning in a bottle. If he is cut, will the immediate howls begin across the small screen Left side blogs, claiming that the Rams’ ownership must all be hateful homophobes? Will boycotts be organized? Will this be held up from the highest ramparts as yet another example of the heteronormative patriarchy keeping the gay man down?
Or will people understand that the Rams are there to try to win another Superbowl and they can’t afford even one weak link in the chain? I spend far too much time watching the news to be hopeful about the answer to that question.