On September 1, the ESPN First Take team debated the future of Michael Sam, the first openly gay football player to be drafted by an NFL team. Sam was released by the St. Louis Rams in the final round of cuts after pre-season, and cleared waivers without any other teams claiming him. While it is unclear whether he will return to the practice squad of the Rams or be picked up by another team, but most every NFL analyst seems to agree that Michael Sam is not done with his dream of playing in the league.
The entire country watched Sam fall to the later stages of the seventh round on draft day this year, waiting in his living room alongside his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano. The emotion of the live coverage of him receiving the call from the Rams in tears and kissing his boyfriend tugged at the heartstrings of the nation as he made NFL history. While not going in the third-round as Skip Bayliss confidently predicted based on his performance his last season in college, his selection made history nonetheless. Sam is on record as wanting to be known for his skill on the field rather than merely being a curiosity because of his sexual orientation, and media circus aside, the man does have the chops to play at the highest level. Sam was awarded the honor of co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) his final year, and it seems unlikely that he will go too long without someone taking a chance on the defensive back.
Sam had a difficult road ahead of him when it was the Rams who selected him in the draft. With nine defensive backs in the mix, man of whom were impact players last season, making the team would have required a phenomenal training camp. Sam did not have that. He had a good pre-season, and did make it to the final cut, showing the level of talent and potential the Rams believe him to have. This makes it likely that he will be signed back on to the practice squad should no other teams approach him with a better offer. The limitations of his skillset make it almost certain that he would not function well in a 3-4 defense, limiting his serious suitors to the 14 other 4-3 defenses in the NFL. That being said, a pass rusher of his caliber will be hard for all of those teams to pass on as the season looms large on the horizon. Size and speed concerns aside, the man finds the quarterback, and that is something which will likely outweigh the ephemeral concerns about being a possible distraction for at least a couple of teams.
While a courageous move to step out and make a stand by coming out when he did, the distinction of being the first openly gay player is a double-edged sword. He is dreaming of playing in a league where players work their entire careers to leave a legacy based on their athletic achievements. As a football player, he must surely want the same thing for himself. Every discussion going forward, however, will almost inevitably involve a discussion of his sexual orientation and the possible effect it has on relationships with teammates and whether or not that impacted his stats. Every contract discussion that will ever be reported on will likely involve the question of whether or not his orientation is a consideration for management in those talks. By taking upon himself the hopes of gay atheletes across the nation with his decision to come out, he has also put himself on a very difficult, very public road. For the dream of playing in the NFL, however, it appears that Michael Sam is willing and able to survive it.
Commentary By J. Dylan Halen