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And let the hysteria about Michael Sam’s draft status begin . . . now.
In the wake of Sam’s announcement that he is the first SEC Defensive Player of the Year to ever announce that he is gay (look, if we’re doing history, let’s do history), the questions about how the NFL would handle his frankness and dignity began. A Sports Illustrated piece quoted a number of anonymous NFL officials saying that Sam had hurt himself by being honest with himself. Then a CBSSports.com draft ranking dropped Sam 70 spots overnight.
These became de facto proof of the rampant homophobia that still surrounds football, from those groups for whom it serves as employment and amusement.
And maybe it is. Anonymity is a time-honored and effective tool for hiding one’s true opinions on any subject, and only a meathead (as in someone whose head would serve humanity much better as the headliner of a blue plate special) would argue that homophobia does not exist in football, or anywhere else for that matter. You can’t legislate against stupidity-fueled hate.
But allow me in my humble role as someone who actually doesn’t care where Michael Sam is drafted or by which team to offer a bit of sense.
The draft is in 87 days – 88 if you assume he won’t go in the first round, 89 if he slips to the fourth or further. That’s plenty of time to remember two important facts:
1. Anonymous quotes from people who aren’t general managers really aren’t meaningful, and neither are arbitrary draft lists. They do not reflect Sam’s future in any way whatsoever, and whether Sam is drafted first or 224th, he is already successful at the thing that isn’t football. Namely, life.
2. The true test of Sam’s choice, and football’s ability to accommodate that choice, comes only from the team that actually does draft him. He could end up with a team that has the level of dysfunction that made the Miami Dolphins such a figure of fun, or on a team that deals with the matter as maturely, sensibly and usefully as the University of Missouri did.
Everything else is ultimately nonsense, great steaming piles of it. Draft lists are among the cheapest and least valuable exercises in our culture, as they are compiled by people who declare themselves to be experts at something at which even the experts aren’t experts.
This would be the portion of the essay where I said something gratuitously insulting about the compilers, but I don’t care enough about their pseudo-craft to bother. They are correct just enough to make you think they try hard, and wrong often enough to convince you that it’s still the blindfolded man trying to recreate a Cezanne by memory with a lump of barbecue charcoal alone.
In other words, I rest my case.
As for the anonymous NFL people found by the Sports Illustrated folks, their reservations are useful as anecdotal information, and anecdotal information isn’t very useful. The draft is increasingly about the illusion of science – 40 times, vertical jumps, size and weight. It isn’t as good at measuring the value of character, in part because football and character pass mostly as ships in the night.
[MAIOCCO: Is Michael Sam good fit with 49ers?]
Sam revealed his character Sunday, just by being himself. His teammates did the same by being a part of the generation that truly doesn’t care about “gay” and “straight” in the way their forebears did. That’s a stone win by any reasonable measure.
The rest of it is whether he can be lucky enough to be drafted by a team that can make him NFL-ready and benefit from that readiness. Bad teams ruin good players all the time, and good teams sometimes cannot use all the good players they come upon – that’s why the NFL is a lot about luck. If you don’t think so, imagine Colin Kaepernick as a Cleveland Brown.
In sum, this is now a mercantile matter for Sam – acing the combine, showing the buyers he is worth buying, and recreating his work at Missouri for a team that can use and enhance what he has. The dumbassery that crops up along the way truly doesn’t matter. Even as a blood pressure test, it truly does not.
So, sorry about all your wasted outrage on those 70 imaginary spots on a list that changes hourly, and upon the team officials who think bullying is just too difficult a task for adults to tackle. They fail because they already have failed, and Michael Sam succeeds because he already has.
All that’s left to determine is whether he’ll be a good NFL football player, and that is only partially in his control. Just like everyone else.