Professional football is the most violent and physical of all four major sports in North America. The gridiron can be likened to a real-life coliseum with the players themselves filling the roles of modern-day gladiators. Given the warrior mentality and testosterone-fueled culture that permeates the National Football League, SEC defensive player of the year Michael Sam should be applauded for the courage it took to openly reveal his sexual orientation as he is about to embark upon his professional football career.
As a pioneer in the sport of professional football, Sam should be lauded for potentially sacrificing his own monetary gains to take a stand and open the door for other gay players to play in the NFL without having to hide behind a curtain of deceit. Sam’s announcement is all the more commendable because it will likely have some type of effect on his ultimate draft status.
Although media coverage of Sam’s announcement has been nothing short of remarkable (Sam was featured on this week’s cover of Sports Illustrated) and abundant endorsement and sponsorship opportunities await as Sam steps into his role as a champion and ambassador of gay rights, the real uphill battle is about to begin.
NFL team and league officials and NFL Players Association executives and player representatives alike will assuredly take the stance that Sam’s sexual orientation shouldn't affect his draft status whatsoever, and if this were a perfect world, it wouldn’t; however, the reality is that the effect -- both real and perceived -- on team chemistry in the locker room for a trailblazer like Sam can't and won't be ignored by NFL decision-makers.
The overriding goal of any general manager is to better his team through the NFL Draft. In addition to the skill set and overall athletic ability of a drafted player, that player’s effect on team chemistry is almost always taken into account -- especially among players selected in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft.
A recent illustration can be found in the circumstances involving current NFL linebacker Manti Te’o in the months preceding the 2013 NFL Draft. His slide to the second round last year (as the result of the catfishing scandal) was real-life proof that a subjective analysis of a player’s perceived impact on team chemistry will almost always be taken into account on draft day.
NFL general managers will undoubtedly take a long, hard look at Sam’s effect on team chemistry and the reaction of veterans in the locker room when they are faced with not only an openly gay teammate but also the inevitable media firestorm that will follow Sam wherever he lands (at least for his rookie season).
If Sam and another player are graded equally on a team’s draft board, it will be extremely difficult for a general manager to pull the trigger and draft Sam when a “safer” pick is there for the taking -- especially with the win-now mentality of the NFL.
It will take a general manager with the same type of courage as Sam to take a stand and draft Sam solely on his merits as a player -- knowing full well that there are fundamental principles of humanity that trump wins and losses in today’s society -- tolerance, respect and equality being three of the more-relevant ones.
My hope is that courage runs deep in the NFL. Only time will tell.
Eugene T. Lee, Esq., is the president/CEO of ETL Associates Inc.