Michael Sam and the NFL Meritocracy

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michael samMichael Sam became the first active openly gay player in the National Football League on Saturday, a fact which is well and truly historic both for the LGBT community and the NFL. Nevertheless, the fact that he was drafted rather late in the day has aroused suspicion and speculation that his sexual orientation may have hurt his prospects, an idea that detracts from the real point of both the draft and arguments for equality: people should be judged on their merits. Part of American culture is the belief that people should be rewarded for being good at stuff. In sports, that idea is taken to its full extent when players who perform are rewarded with big contracts or more playing time. Even when the player’s personality is not all that likable, they are still judged on their performance when it comes to playing the game. In the case of Michael Sam, the meritocracy that is an integral part of the NFL is obvious, if a little battered by some obvious homophobia.

Here are the facts: Sam is a defensive end who was picked by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the 2014 NFL Draft. As an athletic prospect, he did not show very well on exhibition days, which probably led to scouts determining that he would not be picked in a very early round. Nevertheless, his stats from last season as a college player were very good, mostly because Sam is a scrappy player who gives everything he has for his team. That is a good quality to have, but it is not quantifiable in numbers meant to predict future performance. While he may be a good player and have the potential to be a great player, NFL teams want the surest bet they can make when it comes to the draft. Michael Sam simply did not stand out enough when it counted for the teams to pick him up in an early round.

That is one way of looking at the situation. Sam was judged on his merits and found lacking. As some have pointed out, there have been great players who were drafted very late. Tom Brady, arguably one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, was only drafted in the sixth-round. A late pick is not an indication of true talent, merely of teams’ perception of that talent. The implication that he was not picked because he is gay is a distraction from the fact that Sam has to prove himself now that he has been drafted. Meanwhile, Sam has already put the perceived slight into the right mindset, saying that he was going to sack the quarterback of every team that passed him up. If his late drafting is what motivates him to be a better player, then that is the right attitude to have.

The NFL is not a kids’ game. It is a very different atmosphere to college football. Many people like to point out that boys become men after a few seasons playing pro and it seems to be true. The same will no doubt happen for Sam. He may have been drafted late, but he was drafted and now he will have to prove he deserves a permanent spot on the Rams’ roster. Merit is what matters. Performance is key. That is a very positive spin on the situation and one that every player hoping to get drafted is a part of. In that way, the  first openly gay player in the NFL (a title Michael Sam will have to wear no matter what) is being treated just the same as everyone else, which is what a meritocracy does.

The only problem, though, is that he is not being treated like everyone else. After he got the call from the Rams, Sam did what countless other players have done to celebrate: he kissed his partner. What is an innocuous, eye-roll-worthy action from any other player is a cause for controversy when this young gay man does it. That is not Sam’s fault. Instead, it is the fault of the people who make it an issue. On Twitter, for instance, Dolphins’ player Don Jones tweeted out “omg” and “horrible” after Sam was drafted and kissed. The Dolphins have fined Jones for that inappropriate and homophobic outburst, as well they should. Jones will also complete an educational training class which could teach him, if not some tolerance, at least what is appropriate to post on Twitter. But until Jones sent that tweet, Sam’s sexual orientation was not much of a negative. He was simply another player kissing his partner to celebrate a big event in his life. The ensuing controversy is Jones’ fault, not Sam’s.

Despite the outrage over a simple kiss, other members of the sports community have not shown the same recoil. The producer of ESPN’s coverage of the draft said that the issue of a kiss “never came up.” He also noted that for him and his production crew, it was not an issue, calling it “just another moment” that they had to cover as part of the draft. In this case, the kiss shared between Sam and his partner is put into perspective as an emotional moment shared between two people who are both excited. If Sam was a straight player, it would not matter. But he is not and while there are some who are focused on the differences, there are others in the community surrounding the NFL that are not, who are attempting to cover Sam’s story based on its merits as an emotional moment in his life.

But what about the suspicion that Sam was drafted so late because he is gay? While it is an unsubstantiated speculation, nevertheless, there are two answers to the question that has already been asked by some. One answer is that, yes, his sexual orientation made homophobes running teams not want to draft him. That is, however, a seriously pessimistic view to take and one that is not wholly fair to all parties involved. The other answer is that while homophobia may have played its part, but teams looking at Sam were considering his performance and the possible public relations nightmares they might have to deal with. Both of those considerations are important when it comes to the future of a team. No one wants to deal with the distraction of the media when it comes to training and playing football games. This second possibility is the more reasonable one, though not the most interesting.

Despite the American desire for merit to be rewarded, that is not the world as it is. People are unfairly punished for what is not their fault all the time. No doubt, Sam will experience more than his fair share of that, but he probably already knows it. His brave decision to come out of the closet before the draft was not done out of a naive belief that it would all be okay. Putting all that unfairness aside, he has a chance now to live his dream of becoming an NFL star, if only he puts in the time and effort required. The St. Louis Rams are giving him that chance. They are truly participating in the spirit of the game. For observers and critics, though, the social commentary is undeniably tempting. Saying the homophobia led to Sam’s late drafting sells newspapers and makes people want to read the stories. It is a good headline. But a headline is never the full story. A young player is going to play football and face plenty of prejudice to do so, if Dolphins’ player Don Jones is any indication. It should be remembered, however, that the meritocracy which the NFL aspires and claims to be is what is allowing Michael Sam to do this despite the homophobia which exists in the sport.

Opinion By Lydia Webb
Twitter @theAQTweets


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