Ryan Lee: NFL throws LGBT progress for a loss

While our community achieved many important victories in 2014, our progress may have been blindsided by football.

Everything seemed aligned almost a year ago when Michael Sam attempted to become an openly gay player in the NFL, and the first active gay athlete in any of the four major American sports.

Media and pop culture passed a test run when former NBA center Jason Collins announced he was gay, establishing that bigoted opposition to an LGBT athlete was socially unfashionable and could be hazardous to one’s career or reputation. ESPN and other outlets covered Sam’s announcement with the reverence of a historic milestone, while NFL coaches, players and executives – in almost militaristic unison – celebrated Sam, and assured everyone that he would be treated like any other player.

Most importantly, the candidate himself was not some benchwarmer or tortured soul, but instead the defensive player of the year in the premiere conference in college football. He was open about his sexual orientation with teammates during his senior year, without violating the sanctity of the locker room or otherwise disrupting team morale and cohesion.

There seemed no way that the bridge to professional sports would remain uncrossed by an openly gay athlete.
Sam’s subpar performance at the meat-market inspection known as the NFL Scouting Combine left room to rationalize his being drafted 249th out of 256 selections, behind 21 fellow defensive ends, three punters and placekickers, and dozens of players from “powerhouse” football traditions like the Ivy League, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and the Quebec Student Sport Federation.

As a football fan, I thought it sounded reasonable that the St. Louis Rams described Sam’s release at the end of preseason as “a football decision” since the team was already loaded with defensive linemen. I even thought it was advantageous for Sam to be cut and placed into free agency. Had the Rams kept him, many would have accused the team of succumbing to political correctness, while discrediting Sam’s achievements as the result of some new-age affirmative action.

I was sure that Sam’s preseason flash, when he led his team in sacks and was second in tackles, would land the standout rookie on a team that needed him, with a fan base that would be grateful for him, where his merit would be unquestioned. However, no team showed interest except the Dallas Cowboys, which offered him a spot on its practice squad for the first third of the NFL season.

Despite competing for a playoff berth and being among the bottom five teams in sacks, the Cowboys released Sam after seven weeks. Other playoff hopefuls in desperate need of a pass rusher include the San Diego Chargers, Cincinnati Bengals and Atlanta Falcons — all of whom have pretended that Sam, his exceptional college career and his auspicious preseason do not exist.

In a recent interview with GQ magazine, Sam expressed regrets about coming out prior to the NFL draft, saying, “If I had it my way, I never would have done it the way I did.”

Sam’s regret—and the accuracy of his assessment—desecrates LGBT dogma: that the closet should not be mistaken as refuge.

Given his collegiate pedigree and preseason effectiveness, and the desperation of NFL teams for someone with his skills, there is no question that Michael Sam would be on an NFL roster today were he heterosexual, or closeted. It’s devastating to concede that Sam’s best interests were compromised by choosing honesty over deceit.

The many closeted players in the NFL are undoubtedly sighing and thinking, “I told you so,” while younger LGBT athletes must now decide whether being a role model or being employed is most important to them.