Free-agent pass-rusher Michael Sam, the first openly-gay NFL player who has yet to play in a regular-season NFL game, created a mild buzz this week with things he said, and didn’t say, to TMZ.
The headline to the TMZ article blares that Sam declared, “I’m not in the NFL because I’m gay.” But that’s not exactly what he said.
“I think I was the SEC defensive player of the year last year, so I don’t think it had to do with talent,” Sam said.
Sam, who was drafted by the Rams and later spent time on the Dallas practice squad, elaborated on the situation via Twitter.
“Despite what headlines you may read, I’ve never said and have never believed that I am being kept out of the league,” Sam said. “I know I have talent to play in the NFL and I look forward to getting an opportunity once again to prove that I can help a team win.”
While he never said he’s being blackballed because of his sexual orientation, his comments to TMZ show that he believes that the failure of any team to give him one of 53 roster spots or 10 positions on the practice squad after dozens of players have landed on injured reserve has no relation to his ability. So either all 32 teams are simply missing the boat, or they’re making the decision for reasons other than talent.
Regardless, it’s clear that Sam currently hasn’t been able to attract the NFL’s attention. If that continues once the regular-season ends and rosters expand to 90 (that’s 2,880 offseason jobs), Sam will need to consider other ways to hone his craft.
In that regard, he should consider the example set by Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake. Wake possessed the talent after emerging from Penn State in 2005, but Wake couldn’t keep a job in the NFL, being released in June by the Giants after arriving in April as an undrafted free agent. With nothing happening for Wake over the rest of 2005 or in 2006, he signed with the B.C. Lions of the CFL in May 2007.
At that point, Wake’s talent became undeniable. His 16 sacks made him the CFL’s rookie of the year and defensive player of the year in the same season. After a second year in Canada, the NFL came calling; Bill Parcells and company lured Wake to Miami, and Wake has since become one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
For Sam, the same path could be his key to getting a chance in the NFL. But the move comes with considerable risk. Players like Tim Tebow and Vince Young have resisted the chance to demonstrate their skills in Canada, possibly because they feared the ramifications of failure in the CFL. For Tebow and Young, they can continue to tell themselves (and others) that they had the ability to play in the NFL and that every NFL team missed the boat. Failing to demonstrate the ability to thrive in the CFL would have destroyed that myth.
Eventually, Michael Sam may have to ask himself whether he’s willing to risk the perception that he has the talent to play in the NFL by testing those talents in Canada. If he’s right, he could be the next Cameron Wake. If he’s wrong, the notion that he has the skill to succeed in the NFL but that he’s not getting the chance to demonstrate it goes out the window, permanently.