Schrager: Sam’s sexual orientation shouldn’t hurt his draft prospects
SOCHI, Russia — News of NFL Draft prospect Michael Sam’s decision to come out prior to the NFL Draft Scouting Combine crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached Sochi in the early morning on Monday. I awoke in my media hotel room to a number of texts and emails from friends within NFL circles. The response across the board was one of praise, acceptance and respect.
The courage Sam showed in his decision to do this and do it now — months prior to the NFL Draft, instead of afterwards — is one that must go recognized. It’s one that absolutely is being recognized by those within the league and being handled in a positive fashion.
Naturally, the issue of Sam’s "draft stock" has become a hot topic — one that’s going to undoubtedly dominate sports talk radio and NFL programming until the NFL Draft in May. Michael Sam wasn’t a household name a week ago. He could be the most recognized name in the NFL Draft outside of Johnny Manziel come May. That, in itself, may be what "hurts" Sam come NFL Draft weekend.
The NFL may very well be ready for an openly gay player. Coaches, front offices and team personnel, however, might not be ready for the added media attention that player receives. NFL veterans don’t usually love it when rookies receive the bulk of a team’s media spotlight. This will be an obvious exception, of course, as Sam will be an intriguing figure for reporters to follow almost immediately after he’s drafted. Even the least savvy of NFL veterans will have to understand the intrigue. But will the locker room be okay with that? After the initial wave of mass media interest takes the nation by storm in May, will the cameras and recorders remain fixated throughout the remainder of year? If so, could that derail a team from its ultimate goal — hoisting a Lombardi Trophy? Fair questions, and ones that could very well be asked in the coming months.
"It’s going to come up in the draft room because it has to," one NFL executive told me on Monday. "The ‘distraction’ — if there even is one — has nothing to do with the young man’s sexual preference, though. It has to do with all that added media coverage for a guy that probably won’t be one of the top players on the roster."
The same executive continued, "But that concern’s overblown. It always is. If you love the player and you think he can help you win football games, that’s all that will matter in the end. I can’t imagine not taking a guy we really liked as a player and as a person because we were concerned about a few extra flash bulbs in the locker room."
A good coach and a strong team PR staff should be able to manage the "distraction" of any additional media demand. "Can he play like he did at Missouri? Can he contribute on special teams? If so, there’s a spot for him on an NFL roster," a league source said via text.
I had Sam ranked as the 92nd overall prospect after January’s Senior Bowl. That ranking came from conversations with various league personnel men and grading his film work from an illustrious career at Missouri. I don’t see that ranking taking a hit because of this news.
But make no mistake: Michael Sam, well before his announcement, was no lock to be selected in the first or second round. And that’s important.
Both before and after Sunday’s announcement, Sam was a second or third day NFL Draft prospect. If he doesn’t go in the first round, it will have far more to do with his abilities as a football player and the projections teams have for him at the next level than his sexual preference or the media attention that teams might fear will come with that. I was at the Senior Bowl watching practices for a week in Mobile, Alabama, talking to scouts at each and every one of them. Sam was there on the field in front of us. And though he had some really nice moments, he didn’t particularly stand out as a first-round prospect. He didn’t put a stamp on his draft status as a Day One or Two guy as others did.
Going a little more in-depth on Sam, the football player, he is what NFL types call a "tweener" — a pass rusher who dominated at the defensive end position in college, but is likely a bit small to play the same position in the NFL. Tweeners typically move from defensive end to outside linebacker in the pros. In some cases, teams are willing to roll the dice and the transition come Draft weekend. In others, teams wait a few rounds and scoop those guys up in the later rounds.
If Sam runs a disappointing 4.7 or 4.8 40-yard dash in February, I imagine that will impact his draft stock more than any fears over a locker room culture adjustment or any additional interview requests the PR staff may have to deal with this summer. Truthfully, Sam’s story was an appealing one for reporters even before the Sunday announcement. He went from being the water boy on his eight grade team to the SEC Player of the Year in 2013. He’s one of six children and was raised by a single mother in a tiny town on the Galveston Bay. He’s overcome incredible odds and more than his share of adversity to get to this point. His 2013 season — one in which he led the Cotton Bowl-winning Tigers in tackles for a loss and sacks — was a testament to the human spirit. To get to that point, considering where he was just a few years earlier when he was a two-star recruit in high school, is amazing.
Now, he’s got the chance to truly change lives. He can truly make a difference.
He’ll get drafted in May and will make an NFL roster in August. He’ll suit up for someone Week 1 and will record a few tackles — whether on defense or on special teams. Where and when he goes in the NFL Draft, though, remains unknown. It’s an interesting storyline, yes, but there are months to dissect and over-analyze that.
This week should be spent discussing an incredibly brave young man and the courage he’s shown with this decision.
Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel’s "FOX Report Weekend." He’s the co-author of Victor Cruz’s New York Times’ best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.