First things first: I like Michael Sam. I’m a fan because I like the way the NFL rookie has gone about his business on the field and off it.
Predictably, when Sam “came out” as gay prior to this year’s NFL draft, the media went a little crazy. I understand why Sam felt he needed to announce his sexuality. He wanted to be true to himself rather than living a lie. I’m sure it was a tough decision for him, especially considering his chosen profession and the macho, misogynistic ways of the professional sports world.
I respect what he did and how he went about it.
He made the announcement last February then went on with his life. To his credit, in my mind at least, he didn’t call a lot of attention to himself, a concept Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel hasn’t been able to grasp.
Sam, who was once touted as a high draft pick, didn’t perform well in the draft combine and at 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, he didn’t quite have the size to be a defensive lineman, but wasn’t quite fast enough to be a linebacker.
He was eventually drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the 7th round, 249th out of 256 players. It’s reasonable to wonder how much his sexuality played a role in where he was drafted. It’s also reasonable to wonder if teams weren’t more concerned about media distraction than sexual orientation.
On Saturday, as teams got down their 53-man roster limits, the Rams released Sam. There was speculation they would bring him back for their practice squad but he went unclaimed Sunday and is now free to sign with any NFL practice squad.
Scads of other players – rookies and veterans alike – were also cut Saturday. For the most part, their names weren’t widely publicized. Sam’s was, however, and I understand why. From a media perspective, he made history and therefore, his release by the Rams was newsworthy.
Still, many of my colleagues in the business – especially those at ESPN and other national outlets – have embarrassed themselves with a weird double standard of reminding sports fans an athlete’s sexuality shouldn’t matter while at the same time making Sam’s gayness a major issue.
The perceived dialog was almost comic.
MEDIA: Michael Sam is openly gay. Michael Sam is openly gay. Michael Sam is openly gay. Michael Sam is openly gay. Michael Sam is openly gay and sports fans aren’t ready for it!
SPORTS FANS: OK, we get it! Enough already. Why can’t he just be Michael Sam? Why does he have to be “openly-gay” Michael Sam? I thought his sexuality didn’t matter. Sheesh, just let the man play football!
MEDIA: See, we knew you weren’t ready, bigots.
Predictably, the narrative was picked up again over the weekend, much of it coming from people who just don’t know what they’re talking about. Or perhaps they do know what they’re talking about; perhaps they understand how a good controversy sells and they’re keeping it alive.
I suppose in that regard, I’m no different than they are. I’m just as guilty; I’m writing about it now.
But here’s a thing I’m having trouble with: Michael Sam was a great college player who -- at least at present time -- couldn’t make it in the NFL. Likewise, Tim Tebow was a great college player who couldn’t make it in the NFL.
Tebow, outspoken in his Christian faith, is now something of a punchline. The other day I heard an ESPN radio personality feigning disgust that Tebow is so over hyped.
Gosh, it’s good to know ESPN is now concerned about athletes receiving too much hype.
Look, I know Michael Sam’s journey isn’t over and I hope he gets more chances to play in the NFL. But regardless, in our politically-correct society, I know one thing: He’s not in danger of becoming an ESPN punchline.
Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @StandardExJimbo