Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Michael Sam and the NFL's Homophobia

Michael Sam was cut by the St. Louis Rams over the weekend. Over the following 24 hours, no other team had decided to claim the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL. Then came the news that the Rams didn't choose him for its practice squad. Though NFL watchers believed his options are dim, it appears Sam could be picked for a practice squad for another team this week.  Sam flew into Dallas last night to take a physical for the Cowboys today, a source has told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.  If Sam passes his physical, the Cowboys intend to sign him to their practice squad, the source said.

There have already been lots of arguments on social media, and it will continue this week, over whether or not Sam being cut from the Rams represented homophobia in the NFL. The Rams spent a seventh-round draft pick, No. 249 overall, on Sam in May's draft. He put together a solid preseason performance, coming up with 11 tackles and three sacks. In Thursday night's preseason finale against Miami, Sam finished his preseason work with a team-high six tackles.

Frankly, I'm astounded that anyone can even debate whether he was cut because of homophobia or not. Only one SEC Defensive Player of the Year was not drafted in the first (or at least early) rounds of the draft, that player was Michael Sam.  You don't become the Defensive Player of the Year in the toughest conference in NCAA football without being a player worthy of the NFL.  However, the NFL has a record of giving slaps on the wrist for ugly homophobic incidents and hiring known haters. The media, particularly ESPN, is pitiful and insensitive in reporting on LGBT sports issues.

We witnessed players tweeting hateful comments after Sam came out, and saw stories in the sports media quoting unnamed officials saying open gays would mess with the locker room "chemistry" and that the NFL just wasn't ready. Even if we accepted that Sam's performance wasn't up to par and that that was the sole reason for his fate, there is nothing beyond the hollow words of NFL officials to suggest that if he were "good enough" he'd be playing -- and much to suggest otherwise.  The most convincing argument in my book is hat the NFL wants to shy away from controversy and media attention over LGBT issues.  They don't want bigoted NFL fans screaming at their TV about "faggot" teams because they have gay players.  Racism played a similar role just a few decades ago in professional sports.  However, they are less equipped at dealing with homophobia then with racism.

Ross Tucker of the NBC Sports Network and many others wondered on Twitter why Sam hasn't been signed to a practice squad despite his solid performance in the preseason (11 tackles and three sacks). Buffalo Bills center Eric Wood pointed to ESPN, and I thought the same thing when I heard the news.  Earlier last week, ESPN reporter Josina Anderson discussed Sam's showering habits when asked on "SportsCenter" about how he was fitting in with his teammates. In that segment, Anderson speculated as to why Sam was showering alone.  ESPN later apologized for the report, saying in a statement that "we collectively failed to meet the standards we have set in reporting on LGBT-related topics in sports."

Despite the apology, Rams coach Jeff Fisher ripped ESPN and called Anderson's piece "very, very unprofessional." After releasing Sam -- who spoke publicly about his sexuality for the first time in interview with ESPN and The New York Times back in February -- Fisher told reporters that the 2013 SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year was not a distraction throughout the team's training camp.

There are many who are saying Sam was more than good enough to play in the NFL. The Rams gave Sam a fair shake, drafting him late when many sports commentators thought he'd be drafted earlier, based on his college performance. Already it seemed like general managers were fearing him. Whether he was cut because he was not what the Rams needed doesn't explain why he was not chosen for their practice squad or by another NFL team.  I personally don't understand  he reasoning behind this other than homophobia.  Even the experts on the NFL (something I'm certainly not) agree that this doesn't make sense.

Adam Scheftler of ESPN tweeted:
12 players had 2.5 or more sacks this preseason. 10 are on 53-man rosters. One on practice squad. And last, Michael Sam, hasn't found work.
And here's Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report:
It can't be stressed enough how Sam not being signed despite a productive preseason is almost unprecedented. In my two decades of covering the NFL, it isn't just rare; it's basically unheard of for a player to not make the league after playing well in the preseason. A player who produces like Sam did almost always makes it on some roster in the league, either on a practice squad or a 53-man roster... In interviews with a number of team officials, I can't find one who will actually say to me, "He can't play." They all point to the media and say he's too big a distraction.One general manager told me, "Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention."
The NFL is a league that tolerates homophobia, the lofty words of its officials notwithstanding. San Francisco 49er Chris Culliver saw no suspension for saying gays shouldn't even think about coming out -- sent to sensitivity training, the feeble penalty we've seen in similar instances with players. Special team coordinator Mike Priefer of the Vikings said all gays should be put on an island and "nuked," and got a three-game suspension -- two if he goes to sensitivity training. Just imagine if he'd said that about Jews or any other group. Would he still be on that team?

And the New York Giants got away with hiring former giant David Tyree as director of player development, a man who campaigned against gay marriage as "tyranny," supported an "ex-gay" therapist on Twitter just a few weeks ago and has a "spiritual mother" (and co-author and business partner) who is a leader in the extreme New Apostolic Reformation, which believes homosexuality is an abomination and that Christianity needs to take over government, media, Hollywood and sports. 

The lack of sensitivity in the NFL got proof last week when the Minnesota Vikings and former punter Chris Kluwe said they had reached a settlement averting a lawsuit over Kluwe’s claim that the team wrongfully released him last year because of his outspoken support for same-sex marriage rights.  Under the deal, the Vikings will donate an undisclosed sum of money to five gay rights-related charities over the next five years. Kluwe said he won’t receive any money as part of the settlement.  Most people settle if they think there is a chance they may lose the lawsuit.  For me this settlement is an admission of guilt.

Worse still, there's no real pushback on homophobia in the NFL. GLAAD has sadly become a joke when it comes to taking on defamation, particularly within sports. The LGBT group defers to the gay ally groups working with the teams, like You Can Play, co-founded by Patrick Burke, a straight man who has a foot in the door of professional sports, working for the NHL. These groups do not see it as their role to hit hard against the teams and the leagues, working to educate from inside.

The Human Rights Campaign, though a Washington lobbying group, clearly saw a void in GLAAD's negligence and rightly sent out a blistering press release about the Tyree hire a few weeks ago, only to be slammed by Burke, the straight guy lecturing the gays on how they should criticize homophobia.

So, there's no real pressure from the outside, certainly not like the sustained pressure we've seen on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell regarding domestic violence, which at least forced him to finally change course last week, even if it will require continued pressure. Or like the corporate and political pressure, even from U.S. senators who signed a letter, to get the Washington Redskins to change its racist name. Until we see that kind of shaming from the outside regarding homophobia in the NFL -- a non-profit, by the way, which gets all kinds of tax breaks -- until LGBT groups and politicians stand up and take it on rather than cowering, homophobia will continue to get a pass.

Michael Sam and his boyfriend, 23-year-old Vito Cammisano from Kansas City, Mo.  Both were athletes at the University of Missouri, where Cammisano was on the swim team.


Coop said...

The fact that commentators discussing showering habits of players says a lot. I say WHO CARES

Andrew Weiss said...

I have no idea if Sam's 7th round pick was warrented or not. The argument was that he was too small to be a lineman and not fast enough to be a linebacker. Also no experience on special teams.

The Rams were not a good place for Michael, because they had an excess number of outstanding players at his position and he simply got caught up in a numbers game.

Dallas is a great place for Michael to land, because they are in deperate need of good defensive players. A local sports commentator said that Sam was probably the 3rd best defensive player for the Cowboys to start with. Hopefully, he can eventually find a regular playing spot and even stardom in the not too distant future.

Also Michael Sam sold the 7th most jerseys of all NFL players. Shows that the public is way ahead of the media and the NFL.

Amanda said...

I hope Michael Sam gets signed to a team. And hopefully if more people in professional sports come out it will help fight against homophobia. :)

nikki said...

Pulling for him! I can't imagine the pressures he's under, and yet he never loses his cool.