Drafting Michael Sam and media narratives: The NFL’s conundrum

The other night on The Radio Blast podcast, my good friend Todd Lewandowski asked me how big a story it would be in the media if Michael Sam is not drafted in this week’s NFL draft. I said I thought it would be a huge story if the first openly gay draft prospect goes undrafted, that it would look bad for the NFL

.Sure enough, the story is already starting. From a story by Bill Pennington in today’s New York Times, Wade Davis, who is advising Sam, said:

“The N.F.L. is in a tough spot. If Michael Sam goes in the second or third rounds, people will say they made some team do that. If he is taken in the last rounds, people will say he was drafted late because he’s gay. And while I am convinced the N.F.L. is more than ready to embrace a gay player, if Michael isn’t drafted, it will definitely be a setback.”

The NFL and its teams really are in a no-win situation here. Most draft experts project Sam as a mid-to-low round draft pick (Todd, who watches more college football in one day than I have in 10 years, said he thought Sam would be a good special teams player and a low-round pick). Just because he received accolades in college doesn’t mean his game necessarily translates to the NFL. And for some players, not being drafted is sometimes better than being drafted, because then you can pick a team that’s a good fit for you as a free agent. (The Times story says that Sam is almost certain to sign as a free agent if he’s not drafted).

But this isn’t a normal case. This is Michael Sam, the first openly gay player, a player recognized by President Obama for coming out. And although Sam, to his credit, has told reporters that he doesn’t want to be seen as “the gay football player,” the fact remains this is the narrative—particularly outside of sports media. It’s easy to see the headlines screaming “NFL teams refuse to draft gay player” if Sam goes undrafted this week. You can already imagine the stories on The Huffington Post and Slate and a thousand blogs ripping the troglodyte NFL culture for not drafting a college star because he’s gay.

And the NFL is in a tough spot, because it’s impossible to prove a negative. It’s impossible for any team to give any football-related reason for not taking Sam and have it not sound like an excuse, a cop-out. If Sam is not drafted, the narrative will be that the NFL is not ready for an openly gay player—regardless of whether or not that’s true.