In an ideal world, the St Louis Rams’ drafting of Michael Sam as the 249th overall player would have received the normal attention paid to any other seventh round pick, which is not a lot. Instead, in a world that is still trying to catch up with itself, sports journalists fell over themselves to congratulate the franchise for showing the leadership and courage to draft the first openly gay player. Even President Obama forwarded his congratulations – an action not afforded to any of the other 255 players deservedly drafted over the weekend – and the British BBC, who had not reported a word of the proceedings over the three-day event, featured the story among its sports headlines. Les Snead’s decision was heralded as the dawn of a new day in the relationship between sports and gay rights, following in the footsteps of recent similar landmark figures, such as Jason Williams, German soccer player Thomas Hitzlsperger and British diver Tom Daley.
The first drafting of an openly gay player shows how far the macho world of the football locker room has come, but the attention paid to it is perhaps indicative of how far society still needs to go. Jeff Fisher did not draft Sam because of his sexual orientation; he was drafted because of the qualities and attributes that made him SEC Defensive Player of the Year and because of the potential that, at one stage, saw him touted as a fifth-round prospect. And, as hard as his journey has already been, the toughest challenges lie ahead.
While Sam may find himself as the poster-boy for gay rights in sport (a role he may even be reluctant to adopt), his future is as uncertain as any other player drafted in the seventh round and he will be afforded no advantages in his struggle to crack the Rams’ final roster. For starters, Sam will find it hard to simply find his place in a fearsome, but overcrowded, defensive line that was further strengthened by the first-round addition of defensive tackle Aaron Donald, and he will be hoping to contribute mainly in special teams before finding a place as a backup. As a starter in college, this would be unfamiliar territory for him. In his case, he will sadly be facing further pressure from the media and from homophobic critics who will add obstacles to an already difficult task.
And there lies the crux of the matter. This should not be about a gay footballer; it should be about a footballer. And, hopefully, the day will come when such a sporting decision will go as unnoticed as the drafting of center Demetrus Rhaney’s went, immediately after Sam’s (no presidential congratulations for him). By focusing on Sam’s sexuality we do both him and the gay community a disservice by inadvertently drawing attention to a difference that, in reality, should not be there. Perhaps one day the headlines will not read “Michael Sam, first openly gay player” but “Michael Sam, defensive end from Missouri”.