How will news that Michael Sam is gay affect his NFL draft stock?
The news that former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is gay holds significant social and cultural ramifications. But from a purely football perspective, his decision to come out prior to May's NFL draft will make his path to the league daunting, eight NFL executives and coaches told SI.com.
In blunt terms, they project a significant drop in Sam's draft stock, a publicity circus and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player. Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was projected as a mid- to late-round draft pick prior to his announcement.
While none of the executives overtly condemned Sam's decision, their opinions illuminated an NFL culture in which an openly gay player -- from the draft room to the locker room -- faces long odds and a lonely path.
The executives and coaches were granted anonymity by SI.com for their honesty. Their answers were consistently unsparing.
"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
All the NFL personnel members interviewed believed that Sam's announcement will cause him to drop in the draft. He was projected between the third and seventh rounds prior to the announcement. The question is: How far will he fall?
"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down," said a veteran NFL scout. "There's no question about it. It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'"
Before his announcement, Sam had already emerged as a divisive prospect. Some look at his SEC-best 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss and see a high-motor pass rusher who could go as high as the third round. Others see Sam, who is 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, as an undersized defensive end without a true position in the NFL. Of his 11.5 sacks, nine came in three games against what one scout called "garbage competition" -- Vanderbilt, Arkansas State and Florida. "His numbers are inflated," a scout said. "You've got to see through that."
One former NFL general manager described how Sam's future could play out in the draft room. He said when a team is nine slots away from making a pick, there is typically a declaration in the draft room that six players are being considered. When a team is five spots away, that consideration set is whittled to three.
If Sam is among that group of players, the potential distraction of his presence -- both in the media and the locker room -- could prevent him from being selected.
"That will break a tie against that player," the former general manager said. "Every time. Unless he's Superman. Why? Not that they're against gay people. It's more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, 'Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'"
The former general manager said that it would take an NFL franchise with a strong owner, savvy general manager and veteran coach to make drafting Sam work. He rattled off franchises like Pittsburgh, Green Bay, San Francisco, Baltimore and Indianapolis as potential destinations. The former general manager added that a team with a rookie head coach would not be an ideal landing spot.
Sam's announcement did not come as a surprise to most NFL teams. Sam's sexual orientation was considered an open secret in his college town of Columbia, Mo., and the assistant personnel man said he believed "90 percent of teams" were already aware that Sam was gay and had dropped him on their draft boards. He estimated that of the 32 NFL franchises, only two or three didn't know prior to Sunday night's news. He projected that it will impact Sam's draft status "quite a bit."
"You're going to have to have one confident general manager or head coach that is certainly entrenched in his position and established to draft a player like that," the assistant personnel director said. "It's one thing to have Chris Kluwe or Brendon Ayanbadejo, advocates for gay rights, on your team. It's another to have a current confirmed player."
Multiple NFL executives questioned Sam's decision to come out now, as he will be the biggest story in football between now and the NFL draft on May 8. The NFL combine from Feb. 22-25 could turn into a four-day referendum on Sam's professional future. And his place in the NFL draft will be endlessly debated between now and May.
An NFL assistant coach called Sam's decision "not a smart move," as he said it "legitimately affects [his] potential earnings." It wasn't lost on the NFL executives that former NBA player Jason Collins, who came out last April in a Sports Illustrated story, hasn't been signed by an NBA team this year.
"You shouldn't have to live your life in secrecy," the assistant coach said, "but do you really want to be the top of the conversation for everything without ever having played a down in this league?"
The assistant coach said that the decision to draft Sam will ultimately rest on a franchise's level of comfort in possibly disrupting the dynamic of the locker room.
"There are guys in locker rooms that maturity-wise cannot handle it or deal with the thought of that," the assistant coach said. "There's nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room. If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction. That's the reality. It shouldn't be, but it will be."