When SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam announced he was gay earlier this year, it seemed all but certain that he would become the first openly gay NFL player. This afternoon, the St. Louis Rams cut the 24-year-old defensive end from Missouri, meaning that history may not be made this season after all.
Sam came out in February, but his efforts to make history quickly stumbled when he had an unimpressive NFL Combine, hurting his draft stock. He fell all the way to the seventh round, nearly missing out on being drafted altogether. He then had the an eventful summer for a seventh rounder, picking up an ESPY, having a reality show on Oprah’s Winfrey’s network nixed and appearing on the cover of Out magazine. He quickly turned into both an important figure to the gay rights movement and a lightning rod for criticism from those still uncomfortable with the ascent of the LGBTQ community in American life.
Coded criticism followed him for months. Willfully and sometimes belligerently “not caring” about Sam’s sexuality became the common refrain from the mouths of homophobic people who were smart enough to realize that open homophobia isn’t exactly de rigueur anymore. Or, like former head coach Tony Dungy, they couched their criticism not in Sam being gay, but with him being a “distraction to team.” Which would be a cowardly reason not to do anything (Thankfully Branch Rickey didn’t consider Jackie Robinson too much of a distraction to sign). And then, sometimes, the homophobia was so open, that people were willing to complain to the FCC after ESPN showed Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend when the Rams selected him in the seventh round of May’s Draft.
But this cut today doesn’t appear to be the product of homophobia, at least according to Cyd Zeigler and his team at the excellent SB Nation site Outsports. The site has been on top of this story since day one, offering pointed criticism when needed, but clear-eyed evaluation of the uphill battle Sam faced to make the squad. On Monday, they presaged the possibility that Sam might be cut from the Rams, despite his solid play. They argued that an extremely deep Rams D-line would make it tough for Sam to make the roster, but that his performance—10.5 tackles and three sacks this preseason—was good enough to earn him a spot on a team with holes in their line. But, will any team give him the roster spot that the Rams could not?
Sports has always had the double-edged sword of being simultaneously more and less progressive than the rest of society. The meritocracy of producing on the field has allowed people to transcend racial animus with performance. After all, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball 17 years before Congress dismantled Jim Crow laws via the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. But even as late as 1987, on the 40-year anniversary of Robinson playing for the Dodgers, an old teammate and Dodger executive, Al Campanis went on ABC’s Nightline and revealed how much prejudice still existed in baseball. When asked why there weren’t more black coaches and executives, Campanis responded, “No I don’t believe it’s prejudice, I truly believe they don’t have the necessities to be a field manager or general manager. Maybe not all of them, but they are short on—How many quarterbacks do you have, how many pitchers do you have that are black?”
Just as Campanis believed African Americans didn’t have the intelligence to be managers and GMs, gay athletes will still face a stigma that they’re not “tough” enough to be NFL players. But as African American have slowly gained a foothold in the coaching ranks, we can only hope that gay athletes will overcome unfair stereotypes to become mainstays in all of America’s sports leagues and that Michael Sam won’t be the last given a chance to do so.