By Adam Hoge-
(CBS) Your move, NFL.
Three months from now, scouts, coaches and executives from all 32 teams will sit in their respective draft rooms with their final draft boards ready. The scouting reports will be done, and the final decisions on each draft prospect will already have been made.
When the three-day process is over, more than 250 players will be drafted into the National Football League.
And Michael Sam should be one of them.
Sam is a 6-foot-1 5/8, 260-pound defensive end/linebacker prospect out of the University of Missouri. His hands measure at 9 1/8 inches, his arms are 33 1/4 inches and his wingspan stretches out to 80 1/4 inches. He’s small for a defensive end, but he’s quick off the ball, and his game film is impressive. He might be better suited to be an outside linebacker in the NFL, but he rarely ever dropped back into coverage in college, so a position change will be risky. Still, he’s strong, powerful and has a knack for slipping blocks.
Oh, and he’s gay.
Sam bravely announced to the public Sunday that he is gay, essentially backing the NFL into a corner and forcing the league to address homophobia with actions and not just words.
Of course, those actions can’t take place until May 8 at the earliest, when the NFL Draft starts. Until then, all we have are words, which is fine, because conversation on LGBT issues is healthy and necessary.
But come May 8, actions are going to be necessary. And if by, say, May 16, Michael Sam is not on an NFL roster, then we’ll know exactly where the league stands on homosexuality.
You see, by now, you’ve heard the draft pundits weigh in and say NFL teams have a built-in excuse not to draft Sam because he comes with questions about his ability. That’s actually true. In fact, there are likely a number of teams who already have Sam off their board for various reasons that could include: a) not having a need for a defensive end or outside linebacker, b) not fitting scheme or c) simply not thinking he’ll be an effective NFL player.
That’s fine. The fear, however, is that some teams might already have him off their draft board because they heard he’s gay. According to a Sports Illustrated report, 29 or 30 teams already knew Sam was gay before he publicly came out Sunday.
But here’s why the NFL is backed into a corner, even if there are concerns about his ability to play in the league: Sam is a good enough talent to be drafted, but even if he isn’t, he sure as hell is good enough to be signed as an undrafted free agent and get a shot in one of the NFL’s 32 training camps.
So again, if by, say, May 16, Sam is not on an NFL roster, there will only be one reason why: because he’s gay.
From what I’ve gathered from Sam’s comments, I don’t think he was intentionally trying to put the NFL in this position. “I just want to own my truth,” he said. And the reality is that he was probably the one backed into a corner here, because if 29 or 30 NFL teams knew already, he’d essentially be lying to them in team interviews if he didn’t disclose the truth.
But how he got here doesn’t really matter, as it’s now the NFL’s move to make.
And despite those within the league who undoubtedly will claim the league is not ready for an openly gay athlete, the reality is that it has to be. It’s 2014 in the United States of America, where the idea that “all men (and women) are created equal” means more than ever.
I believe the league is ready for an openly gay player because I believe the majority of NFL players would accept a gay teammate without thinking twice about it. The Missouri Tigers should serve as proof of that. Sam came out to his teammates in August, and not only did they not care that he was gay, but they kept his secret for him. Having covered college football for eight years, I know that nine times out of 10, rumors inside college football locker rooms get out, and while this one slipped out enough that apparently NFL teams heard them, the general public did not know. That says a lot about how Sam was accepted, and Missouri should be proud.
However, I’m not that surprised that Sam was accepted by his college teammates. Thinking back to my own college experience, that is the time in my life where I first started to have openly gay friends. I can’t speak for other generations, but I’m 27 years old, and I can honestly say I don’t know a single person who is openly against homosexuality. If they are, they are the ones who are closeted.
To me, 27 happens to be a significant age as it pertains to the NFL. It’s right in the middle of the age group that makes up NFL rosters, and I believe it’s right in the middle of the age group that is more accepting of homosexuality than ever before in this country.
Now, I also know that not all parts of America are as accepting as others, and there will undoubtedly be exceptions. But I have very little doubt that the majority of NFL locker rooms will be accepting to openly gay teammates. Again, the Missouri Tigers should serve as proof of that.
Ultimately, coaches and general managers just care about whether or not a player can help them win. Sure, that includes the impact they have in the locker room, but locker room issues are rare when there is strong leadership within the organization. Take, for instance, Bears head coach Marc Trestman’s no hazing policy, which didn’t get nearly enough attention this season.
As I say often in NFL Draft discussions, all it takes is one. All it takes is one team to believe in a player. That rule also applies when it comes to accepting gay teammates in the NFL.
Michael Sam is brave enough to be that one player. So who is willing to be brave enough to be that one team?
Your move, NFL.
Adam Hoge covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.