As the NFL celebrates the decision of Raiders defensive end Carl Nassib to disclose his sexuality, it’s important to remember the experience of Michael Sam.
Prior to the 2014 draft, Sam announced his own sexuality, making him the first player to announce that he’s gay. Questions still linger as to whether Sam got a fair shot in the NFL.
On one hand, Sam had been the defensive player of the year in the SEC. On the other hand, he didn’t have ideal size or speed to become a high-end NFL pass rusher. He almost wasn’t drafted; some in league circles still believe that then-Rams coach Jeff Fisher made the pick at the behest of Commissioner Roger Goodell.
After Fisher cut Sam, Peter King reported that the league called around to the various NFL teams to find a spot for Sam on a practice squad. Ultimately, the Cowboys did it. But Sam never made it to a 53-man roster. He later had a brief stint in the CFL, the place where Cameron Wake catapulted from undrafted and unwanted to coveted NFL edge rusher who would go on to have a great career.
It’s impossible to know whether it would have been different for Sam if he weren’t gay, or if he had chosen to keep his sexuality private. The reality, however, is that he fell into an area of the roster that put him at risk of being cut; it’s possible that the potential “distraction” arising from his decision to declare his sexuality worked against him in the final analysis of who stays and who goes. (“Distraction” is a often a canard; coaches often weed out players they don’t want by describing the factors that make them less desirable by calling them “distractions.”)
Arguably, Sam’s experience persuaded other players to keep their sexuality private. Seven years later, Carl Nassib has decided to go public with who he is. Although it’s a watershed moment that deserves attention and discussion, here’s hoping that sooner than later a player’s sexuality is met not with a flood of statements and analysis but barely a shrug. That’s ultimately the way it should be and that, for much of society, it has become.