Column: Yes, Michael Sam Did Not Get Picked Because of Homophobia

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Michael Sam, a Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year and the first openly gay NFL draft pick in history, was cut by the St. Louis Rams last Saturday.

Don’t worry, NFL watchers told us, one of the league’s 31 other teams will pick him up. They had a 24-hour window in which to do so, but not a one of them did. It’s OK, those same experts told us, Sam can still make the Rams’ practice squad. Well guess what? That didn’t happen either: the team released the names of their ten-member practice squad on Monday, and Sam wasn’t on the list.

Sam could still be picked up by another team’s practice squad this week, but that doesn’t seem very likely. And if that doesn’t happen, Sam’s only option for playing football may end up being a Canadian team like the Montreal Alouettes.

Now, many of those same NFL watchers, including some members of the gay community, are circling the wagons and taking to social media to claim that homophobia had nothing — absolutely nothing — to do with this talented player getting frozen out of every single football team in the country. This isn’t about his sexuality, it’s about his ability, they say. If Michael Sam were good enough to play in the big leagues, he would have been picked up.

What a load of hooey. I don’t believe that for a second. Michael Sam proved himself to be a solidly effective player in his preseason work with the Rams. According to Tyson Langland of The Bleacher Report, Sam racked up three quarterback sacks, two quarterback hits, and four quarterback hurries over the course of 77 snaps — meaning he put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, on average, once every 8.5 snaps. Just one of Sam’s colleagues performed better.

And as I mentioned above, Sam isn’t just your average defensive player — he won co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference this season, making him the highest-ranking defensive player on the highest-ranked conference in college football. Are you really going to tell me that someone with that level of skill isn’t even good enough for an NFL practice squad?

Bullpucky. The reason every NFL team passed over Michael Sam is homophobia, pure and simple.

NFL expert Mike Freeman, the NFL national lead writer at the Bleacher Report, agrees. Likening Michael Sam not making it in professional football to “seeing Bigfoot on the hood of a UFO,” Freeman writes:

“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.”

Cyd Zeigler, a gay sports commentator and founder of the website Outsports, recently told the NFL Network that while he doesn’t believe the Rams cut Sam because of his sexual orientation, he does believe that Sam’s sexuality is the reason he hasn’t been picked up by any other team in the league. And ESPN’s Adam Scheftler remarked on Twitter over the weekend that of the twelve players who had 2.5 or more sacks during the preseason, ten made it onto a 53-man roster, and one is on a practice squad. The only one who hasn’t yet been able to find work? You guessed it: Michael Sam.

That the NFL remains a deeply homophobic place is no secret. Just look at Chris Kluwe, the former Minnesota Vikings punter who says he was fired for his support of marriage equality, or the New York Giants, who just hired David Tyree — a man with deep, intimate ties to anti-gay extremists — to mentor young athletes as the team’s director of player development. Hell, look no further than the response to Michael Sam himself — underneath the positive press from the LGBT media and the accolades from the growing majority of Americans who support LGBT human rights, there were cowardly anti-gay smears from anonymous NFL executives in the pages of Sports Illustrated, homophobic tweets from Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones, and cheap-shot news reports like ESPN’s now-infamous segment on Michael Sam’s showering habits.

This media circus gives cover to NFL officials, and they’re running for it. The Bleacher Report’s Freeman says he’s spoken about Sam with a number of team bosses, including general managers, and when he asks them whether they’d consider signing Sam, they’re not only responding “no,” but “hell no.” Not one of them says Sam can’t play, Freeman writes. Instead, they tell him that they “fear the media attention.”

It’s funny — I don’t remember the Rams being afraid of the media when they signed known domestic abuser Lawrence Phillips to a multi-million dollar contract. I don’t remember the Baltimore Ravens, the Washington Redskins, or the New England Patriots quaking in their boots when they signed Donte Stallworth, a man who was convicted of striking and killing a man with his car while driving drunk. I don’t remember any NFL teams getting cold feet when it came to signing or retaining players who were caught with illegal drugs, accused of rape, or busted cavorting with prostitutes or cheating on their wives.

But an openly gay man? In today’s NFL, that’s apparently just too much.

For shame. That's homophobia, pure and simple.

Update: Michael Sam will be flying into Dallas on Wednesday to take a physical. If he passes he’s expected to be offered a position on the practice squad.

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