Michael Sam selected by St. Louis Rams in NFL draft
May 11, 2014 § Leave a comment
The NFL at last has drafted its first openly gay player, and he’s headed to St. Louis.
The Rams selected defensive end Michael Sam with pick No. 249 Saturday night, ending months of speculation to when — or if — Sam would hear his name called in the draft.
His named was called in the waning moments of the draft, with the 34th pick in the seventh round, and after 17 other defensive ends received a phone call from an NFL team.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher made that historic call to Sam, who was watching the draft in San Diego with a small group that included his agents and his boyfriend.
Sam’s eyes watered, he bit his lip and then doubled over as he began to sob as a camera from ESPN captured the moment. A few minutes later, he tweeted a picture of himself wearing a navy blue Rams ball cap flashing a huge grin.
“I am overwhelmed. I’m excited and I’m proud to be a Ram,” Sam said on a conference call with St. Louis reporters Saturday night. “I knew I was going to get picked somewhere. Every team that passed me, I was thinking how I’m going to sack their quarterback.”
Sam, who announced he was gay in February, became the first openly gay athlete drafted into one of America’s major professional sports leagues. Veteran NBA player Jason Collins came out last summer and plays for the New Jersey Nets.
“From a historic standpoint, I’m honored to be part of it,” Fisher said.
Sam was a first-team USA TODAY All-America selection at Missouri last fall after leading the SEC with 11.5 sacks. He did that after coming out his teammates prior to his his senior year. His sexuality clearly wasn’t an issue for the Tigers, who won the SEC East and the Cotton Bowl with Sam as their defensive leader.
Sam’s sexuality became national news three months ago, but his football acumen seemed to be more of an issue for NFL teams in the lead up to the draft. He was considered to be small by NFL standards, at just 6-foot-2 and 252 and had a disappointing showing at the NFL scouting combine in February. His 40-yard dash was slow, at 4.91 seconds, and he didn’t jump as high or lift as much as the top pass rushers in the class.
Sam’s measurables improved at his pro day in Columbia, Mo. in March, and Sam was widely considered to be a third-day pick.
Fisher said the Rams gave Sam a seventh-round grade as a pass rush specialist, but the team expected him to be gone by the time they were on the clock for picks No. 249 and 250.
“As much contact I’ve had with teams and owners and general managers over the past couple of months, I have no doubt that teams are evaluating him strictly on his football ability,” Wade Davis, a gay former NFL player and executive director of the You Can Play Project, told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s not to say there aren’t one or two that were scared off by it, but the vast majority of teams really are just saying hey, if this guy can help us win, and he has a body of work that we all respect, then we’re going to take him.”
As Saturday afternoon turned into evening, the seventh round began with Sam still undrafted and his status became compelling theater on TV and social media: Would he be drafted? And if not, why not?
With the Rams’ decision to draft Sam, the NFL might be able to dodge serious questions that Sam’s sexuality affected his draft status had all 32 teams passed on Sam. There were few expectations that Sam would have been selected any earlier than the fourth or even fifth round, but it would have been notable that had a player as productive as Sam was in college not been picked at all.
Sam was the 19th player in the SEC to record double-digit sacks in the past 10 years. All but two others (Auburn’s Antonio Coleman, in 2010; and Alabama’s Wallace Gilberry in 2008) were drafted — all but one of those within the first three rounds.
All 10 of the previous SEC defensive player of the year winners (the league began the award in 2003) were drafted, and Sam’s co-winner last season, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, was a first-round pick on Thursday by the Ravens.
“It’s good that Michael Sam was drafted. I think there’s still very much a problem in that it took for so long for it to happen. But, baby steps,” former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, one of the first active players to publicly advocate for gay rights, told USA TODAY Sports.
Sam made his public announcement in February in a series of interviews, and then spoke about sexuality at a press conference at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. He has largely avoided the spotlight since, eschewing interviews with large and small media outlets.
Sam spent the weekend in San Diego, watching the draft unfold in private, inviting only one television camera from ESPN to capture the moment. The video of Sam and his boyfriend, their hugs and kisses, and their playful exchanges went viral.
“It’s a very historic moment, because what it does is it shows people that look, Michael Sam has people who he loves, who love him, and why can’t he be shown celebrating that draft experience just like any straight player?” Kluwe said. “That’s what gay players in the NFL are going to be looking at, like hold on a minute, if Michael Sam can celebrate with his boyfriend after he’s drafted, why am I not allowed to take my boyfriend or husband or whoever to team parties? Why can’t I take them to the Christmas party? Why can’t I take them to team functions? And that hopefully will drive more change and someone will say, I should be able to take someone to these events.”
The media attention should only intensify as soon as he arrives in St. Louis, where he’ll participate in his first minicamp next weekend. Fisher is confident Sam’s sexuality won’t be an issue in his locker room, and he said he’s received nothing but positive feedback from Rams’ players and his colleagues from across the league.
“People will try to make it a distraction, but it’s not a distraction,” Fisher said. “Personally I’m proud of him for coming out. I’m sure it was a very hard thing to do.”
Davis is working with the NFL to help executives, coaches and players better understand LGBT issues in pro sports — not just to help the league prepare for Sam’s arrival, but to make the NFL a more welcoming environment for future gay players.
Davis met with league officials, including commissioner Roger Goodell, in New York City and gave a presentation to league owners, general managers and head coaches in Orlando in March. Now Davis is working with NFL vice president Troy Vincent to put together a series of presentations with teams and players as part of the league’s Respect at Work program.