Should Michael Sam's announcement be this big of a deal?

Should Michael Sam's announcement be this big of a deal?
February 10, 2014, 10:30 am
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Sorting through many reactions to Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announcing this weekend that he is gay…

A couple of seasons ago, the Bears were preparing to play the Kansas City Chiefs. Lovie Smith was the Bears’ coach. Romeo Crennel was the Chiefs’. In the Halas Hall hallway, I talked with Smith on a specific about the game, then almost as an afterthought that this was a game between teams with two black head coaches, and there hadn’t been any questions or mentions of what once would have been a newsworthy anomaly in sports, not just football. That was a good thing.

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When Missouri defensive end Sam stated publicly that he was gay, the first reaction here was, “Oh.” Interestingly, his teammates at Missouri seemed to have variations of that reaction as well; they knew and were glad Sam didn’t have to carry the information around as a “secret.” That this was a lead story in sport seemed a little surprising, actually, but maybe that’s just me.

Apparently not, though. Peter King in his “MMQB” column talked to a number of NFL’ers and frankly, one reaction was heartening. “Should I really care?” one GM told Peter. “Is it going to be that big a deal? Aren’t we beyond this?”

Obviously not entirely. There will be fallout. San Francisco defensive back Chris Culliver’s anti-gay remarks before last year’s Super Bowl weren’t the only hostile ones, just the most visible.

Draft status – is that really important?

Sam’s draft status is a popular topic right now, whether his statement will affect where the SEC co-defensive player of the year will be drafted or at all. Certainly it will for some, not for others, as a Sports Illustrated survey of a number of NFL officials made evident.

An NFL front-office higher-up told me that the Cleveland Browns didn’t select Donovan McNabb with the No. 1 overall pick of the 1999 draft in part because ownership at the time was not convinced that the city would embrace a team starting anew but with a black quarterback. The Browns took Tim Couch; the Philadelphia Eagles happily took McNabb.

Will some other team/teams have the same regrets someday for passing on Sam because of worries about acceptance? If Sam develops into an elite pass rusher that someone could’ve had for a third- or fourth-round pick, shame on somebody.

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ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said Sunday night that he didn’t think this would affect Sam’s status. For some teams, it probably won’t. For others that do not have strong leadership, or don’t trust what they have in their locker room, it will. That’ll be their loss. And Sam’s possibly.

Right reactions

The NFL has issued statements in the wake of situations like the Culliver comments, the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin imbroglio and now the Sam announcement: "We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the statement read. "Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."

Those don’t really do a lot of good. Except that they do, some at least.

When he was sending troops into Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect black children during integration battles there in the 1950s, then-President Dwight Eisenhower was warned that he could not force people to think or believe what he sought.

His response: “You can’t legislate the heart,” Eisenhower acknowledged. “But you can legislate the heartless.”

Sometimes that’s the small step available at the moment. It doesn’t fix anything, but it says what will or won’t be acceptable, and that’s a step in the right direction.

Somehow it’s difficult not to see a bizarre twist to the anti-gay laws thrown up by Russia around the Olympics. Personally, that stance was repugnant, and ideally it will tilt some attitudes toward seeing any sort of discrimination like that as repugnant as well.