Michael Sam, the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and a probable NFL draft pick, made waves when he announced on Sunday that he is gay. The The New York Times, ESPN Outside the Lines, and Outsports reported that Sam’s public announcement also had the NFL world buzzing about how his announcement would affect his draft stock, given the NFL’s uneven record of support for gay rights and potential gay players.
The early returns, despite some supportive tweets from prominent figures like Hall of Famer Deion Sanders and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Malcolm Smith, were not exactly encouraging. Several anonymous NFL personnel people told Sports Illustrated that the league is not yet ready for an openly gay player. One opined that:
In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.
His logic may be dubious, but this the type of person who will have a direct say on when or if Sam gets picked in May. CBS Sports’ NFL draft rankings seemed to reflect the sentiment that Sam’s draft potential would decline because of his announcement. Bleacher Report’s Curt Popejoy noted that Sam plummeted 70 spots on CBS’ big board between Sunday night and Monday morning.
cbssports dropped Michael Sam from their 90th ranked player to 160th overnight. #justsayin
— Curt Popejoy (@NFLdraftboard) February 10, 2014
However, Sam catapulted back up to the 110th overall spot just hours after Popejoy’s tweet. Frank Cooney, publisher of The Sports XChange, the sports information service that powers CBS’ draft projections, clarified to ThinkProgress that the CBS big board is not always in line with his service’s rapidly shifting internal projections. Cooney said Sam was already due for a downgrade on the rankings due to what the draft forecasters deemed a poor Senior Bowl performance earlier this month. He didn’t have an explanation for the 50-spot boost after the initial 70-spot fall. But the most important takeaway here is the unpredictability of how Sam’s sexual orientation will affect his status—and that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions too quickly based on mock drafts.
Despite the accolades he’s received for his defensive play in one of the most competitive conferences in college football, Sam already had question marks surrounding his NFL potential. A “tweener” at just under six-feet-two-inches, Sam is considered undersized for an NFL defensive end and may have to become a linebacker in the pros. And while a guy named Mike Sam might have a linebacker-appropriate name, he didn’t play there much in college. His pass-rushing ability would be an advantage at outside linebacker, but there will be questions about whether he has the speed to play in pass coverage in the NFL. He’s still worthy of consideration at both positions, given the success teams have found with undersized defensive ends and their willingness to shift guys from end to linebacker and back. But all of those issues create question marks that could make for sizable variations in Sam’s draft projections, given that teams will have different ideas for how to use him and how valuable he may be. That he’s 24 years old and thus a bit older than most prospects coming out of college only adds to that.
Sam’s sexual orientation shouldn’t be considered a non-issue when evaluating his projected draft slot, especially when a very real culture of intolerance persists in some front offices and locker rooms. In fact, one general manager told SI’s Peter King that Sam will not be drafted at all now. But the league doesn’t have a uniform approach to gay players: Packers’ coach Mike McCarthy addressed Sam’s coming out on Monday, telling reporters, “Any player who can come here and be a good teammate and follow the rules of our program, which is one be respectful and produce on the football field, we have room for that guy.”
The real test for Sam and the NFL won’t be be how much his name fluctuates in pre-draft projections, but how he is treated during the actual draft process. We could get a better sense of that during the upcoming Scouting Combine later this month, after Mizzou’s Pro Day in March, and during his interviews with teams. Then, in early May, we’ll see when his name is called and whether the NFL accepts him afterward.