With Michael Sam poised this week to become the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL, several teams are likely to pass on selecting him because of the “distraction” his presence on their rosters would generate, a pair of NFL insiders say.
On the new episode of “Capital Games,” Bill Polian, a former top executive for several pro football franchises and now an ESPN analyst, said he believes Sam’s coming out probably hurt his draft status, because teams are cognizant of the extra media scrutiny that drafting him will bring.
“One of the questions you would ask is, as a football player, is he worth all of the trouble we’re going to have in terms of the early going with media, with involvement by the league office, with involvement by special interest groups, et cetera? Is he worth all that trouble?” Polian told me and ESPN’s Andy Katz.
“There are going to be some teams, unfortunately, who say, ‘No, he isn’t.’ He’s not that great a player that they’re going to be willing to put up with the early kinds of intrusions – football people would view them as intrusions and distractions – that you will get, because this is not a sports media issue,” he added. “This is MSNBC. This is Fox News network. This is [Bill] O’Reilly-type stuff that is going to get forced into your football program.”
Polian, who served in high-ranking positions for the Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Indianapolis Colts, stressed that he doesn’t think any NFL locker room will be less than welcoming to Sam: “The players won’t have any issue with [his sexual orientation] at all.”
But based on the former University of Missouri defensive end’s talents, some franchises are likely to conclude that bringing him aboard is not worth the trouble, Polian told us. Some scouts and analysts are predicting that Sam might not even get drafted.
“Michael, while a good player and in my humble opinion good enough to make it in the league, and make a team and be a contributor as a pass rusher and special teams player, they may not see the distraction as worth their while,” Polian said.
ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter agreed that Sam’s sexual orientation will be a factor when teams start drafting players Thursday. Sam, 24, came out as gay in February, after the college football season concluded, although many of his teammates were previously aware of his sexual orientation.
“You know of all the other factors that come along with drafting a Michael Sam,” Schefter said. “This is not just ESPN covering the debut of some rookie fifth-, sixth-, seventh-round draft pick, wherever it is that he is picked. This is every TV station, this is media coverage, this is a lot of extracurricular activities that mid-to-late-round draft picks don’t ordinarily bring.
“In this particular case, it would be a lot of extra attention. I think you factor it into your decision, but I don’t think it makes the ultimate decision for you.”
NFL officials are aware of the spotlight they’re under in regard to Sam, Schefter added.
“The league is at a crossroads in terms of locker-room culture and atmosphere that it is trying to teach and employ,” he said. “I think that the league is at a moment in time where it has the chance to make a difference, and this is another example of that where the way a league and the team handle this situation can help be an example for other businesses and walks of life. And I think the league recognizes that, is aware of it, and wants to make sure it is out in front of this, leading by example.”
Schefter said that he thinks the extra attention on Sam will die down if and when he becomes a regular NFL player. He compared it the firestorm of media coverage around Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o surrounding last year’s draft, after a bizarre story emerged revealing that the existence and death of his supposed girlfriend had been a hoax.
“I think he will come off some teams’ boards. But I also think that – and maybe it’s not as extreme of an example – but last year there was a lot of attention around Manti Te’o, and that was going to be a distraction to for whatever team took him. And yet the [San Diego] Chargers drafted him in the second round and he didn’t seem to be much of a distraction at all year long,” he said.
“I think it’s how a team will handle it. And the Manti Te’o issue went away, and I think over the time maybe the Michael Sam issue also will slowly just dissipate.”
We also talked with Polian and Schefter about the political intrigue that surrounds the draft, with agents, coaches, general managers, scouts and members of the media engaged in wheeling and dealing as well as misinformation campaigns.
You can listen to the full podcast HERE.
“Capital Games with Katz and Klein” is a part of the new podcast series, ESPN Perspectives, with original programming on issues across the sports world. The program explores the intersection of sports and politics, through interviews and analysis, and can be downloaded free via iTunes.