“Judge me for what I do on the field,” Michael Sam asks in a new Visa commercial. Unfortunately for the University of Missouri defensive end, that’s just what NFL teams are doing.
It’s Day Three of the NFL Draft, and Michael Sam remains unclaimed. When Breitbart Sports reached out to Chris Landry in February, the former Oilers/Titans and Browns scout gauged that the openly gay player “could go anywhere from 4th round on.” Put another way, he’s a Day Three pick or worse–an undrafted free agent.
That assessment came before the NFL Combine, where Sam put in a horrible performance. The 24-year-old senior ran a 4.9 forty, jumped 26.5 inches in the vertical leap, and pushed 225 pounds for 17 repetitions in the bench press. Decent high school players test out better than Michael Sam.
But, as Sam’s proponents rightly remind, football’s not played on a track or in the weight room. Sam received SEC co-defensive player of the year honors from the league’s coaches. His breakout senior season saw him register 11.5 sacks and 19 backfield stops. Sam may lack size and athleticism. He makes up for it in effort, deference to coaching, and a knack for making stops for losses. He’s a good football player.
Missed among the accolades and statistics are the facts that Sam matched up against weaker right tackles, played second-fiddle as Missouri pass rusher to fellow defensive end Kony Ealy–who went late in the second round to Carolina–and compiled nine of his sacks against weaker SEC squads in Florida, Arkansas, and Vanderbilt. His size–6’2” and 260 pounds–and speed limitations make him a fit only in four-man fronts run by roughly half of NFL teams as their primary defense. He’s not big enough to play down in a thirty front and not athletic enough to stand up in either a forty or thirty defense.
Despite compelling reasons to suspect that Michael Sam wound up on the cover of Sports Illustrated and in a credit card commercial precisely because of his sexual orientation, his well-wishers contend that teams bypassing Sam would represent discrimination rather than good scouting. An unscientific online OutSports.com poll, for instance, finds that 46 percent of respondents believe that “homophobia” will be the “chief reason” should Sam go undrafted. As Wayne Besen puts it at the Huffington Post, “only pure bigotry would keep Sam from being drafted.”
But legitimate reasons may keep Michael Sam from hearing his name called at Radio City Music Hall. He’s small, slow, weak, and positionally one-dimensional. MMBQ‘s Greg Bedard, after watching twelve games of Missouri game tape, evaluated Sam as perhaps the fourth best pass rusher on the Tigers. He noted “a constant theme on tape that he often falls for zone-read play-fakes and also struggles to diagnose screens. A player with limited athletic ability can be a viable player if he has exceptional awareness and instincts, but that does not show up on tape for Sam.”
When Breitbart Sports asked Chris Landry where Sam might end up, he pointed to “teams with strong leadership and locker room like the Patriots.” One way of interpreting this focuses on the maturity of Sam’s potential teammates. Another interpretation, perhaps not quite what Landry intended, focuses on Sam‘s maturity. He might fit in with a “strong leadership” team because he has shown such qualities at Missouri and throughout his life.
Sam’s story inspires. With three siblings deceased and two brothers in the penitentiary, Michael Sam finds himself knocking on the NFL’s door. Sam lived out of his mom’s car and out of friends’ spare bedrooms. He is the first member of his family to attend college. “Judge me for running a 4.91 at the Combine, for a blown tackle on the outside rush, or holding fourth and goal with your team’s wildcard berth on the line,” he says in the Visa spot. Why not judge him for transcending an awful home situation?
Michael Sam, even if he plays football worse than other potential NFL rookies, grasps the basic moral of the game better than almost anyone. Football’s a sport about getting knocked down and getting back up. Everyone falls in the dirt. Not everyone rises to fight on. Michael Sam, whether or not his physical and athletic gifts enable him to show this quality in the NFL, has already applied the gridiron’s basic lesson to life.
That’s worth cheering. NFL teams passing on an inspirational competitor with marginal talent isn’t cause for booing.
As Michael Sam would tell you, “Judge me for what I do on the field.”