The drafting of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam by the St. Louis Rams marked an enormous breakthrough for tolerance in professional sports. It should be a joyful occasion for anyone interested in a more open and tolerant society. This is pro football, the ultimate macho sport with dangerous collisions and violence. Sam plays defensive end, a physical position occupied by many of the toughest players. He is not a placekicker. He still has to make the roster at the end of training camp, but this shatters the stereotype of what it means to be manly.
It was not always this way. Before perestroika, I was regularly asked how I would counsel a client who told me he was gay. I responded that he would receive better treatment if he revealed he was a Communist than to tell his teammates and the world of his sexual preference. The below-40 population represents a paradigm shift with tolerant social attitudes.
President Obama's comments certainly helped. The comments of Rams coach Jeff Fisher, commissioner Roger Goodell, and many NFL veterans have been welcoming and enlightening. NFL teams are meritocracies. If a player gives the team total effort and aids their chance to win -- he is accepted. The question veterans have for Sam is -- can he rush the passer and can he stop the run?
There have been many misguided comments on talk radio and social media attempting to assert NFL homophobia because Sam was not drafted earlier than the seventh round. They cite his accomplishments as SEC Defensive Player of the Year and All-American selection as reasons he should have been a much higher draft pick. I have represented NFL athletes for 40 years and the criterion has always been the same.
A player has a book of film from his college play which factors into the evaluative judgment. A later "second season" of scouting consisting of All-Star Games, the NFL Scouting Combine, Pro Scouting Day on campus, and individualized trips to see teams has become very determinative. Teams pay millions of dollars to continue this scouting at the end of a player's last collegiate season.
NFL draft status is a projection of how a player will adjust to the pro game and perform for the next ten years. It is not a merit badge awarded for conspicuous college performance. Sam is 6-2 and weighs 261 pounds, which is undersized for the position he played in college of defensive end. The majority of the players on the other side of the line are well over 300 pounds. At the moment, he lacks the speed and burst necessary to play outside linebacker. A team will have to be creative in figuring out how to use him.
He was able to showcase his skills in the Senior Bowl and scouts were not impressed. He participated in the Scouting Combine and ran a 4.9 40 time, which is a slow time for a linebacker. His bench press was an unimpressive 17 repetitions. Sam was as thoroughly scouted as much as possible and found to have impediments and flaws. He showed admirable courage in his announcement and grace throughout the process, but was he supposed to be elevated above his heavily scouted ranking in respect to competing draftees because he is gay? Isn't the point to allow him to enter the league on the basis of his talent?
Many of us are rooting for Michael Sam to make a team and make a big impact. His journey to overcome a difficult family situation is inspiring. The classy way he has handled the process raises admiration for him. On the other hand, there is outrage because he briefly kissed his romantic partner in the moment of exultation post-draft. What part of being gay and expressing feelings did some people misunderstand? Sunday was a happy day for anyone interested in being part of a more accepting and humane society. In a few more years, people will not remember that sexual preference was ever an issue in sports.
-- Leigh Steinberg has represented many of the most successful athletes and coaches in football, basketball, baseball, hockey, boxing and golf, including the first overall pick in the NFL draft an unprecedented eight times, among more than 60 first-round selections. His clients have included Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young, Troy Aikman and Warren Moon, and he served as the inspiration for the movie "Jerry Maguire." Follow him on Twitter @leighsteinberg.