NGSC Sports

The Mike Sam Distraction Argument is Bull Manure

The Mike Sam distraction argument is complete and utter bull manure. Yes, I said it. When Tony Dungy said he wouldn’t draft Mike Sam because he would be a distraction the hypocrisy was impossible to ignore. Dungy doesn’t speak out against all things contrary to his religious beliefs. Why then pick this one?  The distraction argument can be boiled down to a disagreement over what someone is doing. It’s plain and simple.

It’s difficult to understand why some people seem unwilling to grant Mike Sam his due and recognize what he has accomplished thus far in his short life span. He came from a troubled background where all the cards seemed stacked against him. He would go on to become a well decorated high school athlete who went on to play defense for Missouri.

When he joined Mizzou in 2009, it was a member of the Big 12. In 2013, Missouri moved to the South Eastern Conference. The SEC is widely regarded as the toughest conference in college football. Missouri was widely expected to finish at the bottom of the conference.

Playing defensive football in the SEC is no big deal you say? Not only did Sam play at Missouri but he helped lead his school to a 12 win season, the Eastern championship and a matchup against Auburn University for the SEC crown.

Along the way, Sam notched 123 tackles, including 36 for loss, 21 sacks, six forced fumbles and two intercepted passes. As a senior in 2013, Sam recorded 11.5 quarterback sacks and 19 tackles for a loss. He led the SEC in both categories. For his performance in 2013, Sam won SEC co-defensive player of the year honors, first team All SEC and was a consensus All American.

Early on Sam was considered an early to mid round draft selection. His draft stock was at its highest. Then two things happened. As he prepared for the upcoming NFL combine, Sam was advised media outlets were prepared to out him.

You see, Sam had been an openly gay football player at Missouri. He announced it the summer before his senior year and his Missouri football family protected his privacy. Local media were aware of this fact but none reported on it. It was remarkable his “secret” was safe for so long.

Sam’s college teammates knew he was gay. By all accounts, it did not divide the locker room. There were no blustering reports of him being a distraction. You can hardly argue his Missouri team suffered when you consider where it finished in his senior year in 2013.

Outsports has an excellent article on the backstory behind the announcement. Sam had decided he wanted to control the timing and means by which NFL teams became aware he was gay. Sam and his agents knew the enormous risk he would be taking by announcing he was gay before the NFL draft. They wanted it handled appropriately.

In coming out as gay, Sam made history by becoming the first openly gay player to come out prior to starting his NFL career. If he made an NFL roster, he would become the first openly gay football player in the history of the National Football League. In doing so, he would be breaking new ground and paving the way for other gay football players in the league. It’s virtually impossible to downplay how momentous the announcement would be though some have tried very hard.

The second thing to happen is that Sam had a poor combine performance. His pro day was somewhat better but it affected his draft stock. His draft value wildly fluctuated. He dropped to the 5th round to undraftable in a matter of a couple of months. He would ultimately be drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams.

Once Sam came out, the intent was for him to focus on football and he has been remarkably consistent in that regard. There are only two exceptions and the reactions to each are very telling. It says a lot that Sam got criticized so strongly for these two exceptions.

First, Sam was offered the opportunity to do a documentary with Oprah. Yes, THE Oprah. The documentary was going to chronicle Sam as  he prepared to try and make an active NFL roster. Per Oprah’s statement:

“We are honored that Michael is trusting us with his private journey in this moment that has not only made history but will shape it forever…. The next real-life story we follow in ‘The Untitled Michael Sam Project’ promises to spark valuable, important discussion on life in America today. Acceptance and illumination start here.”

The backlash was instantaneous. Sam was widely criticized for agreeing to do the documentary. Fellow draftee A.J. McCarron was also going to be part of a reality show that documented his wedding to Katherine Webb but he didn’t get near the criticism Sam received. Ultimately, the documentary was postponed due to the backlash and criticism.

Then, at age 24, Sam was just awarded the prestigious Arthur Ashe Award at the 2014 ESPY awards. The award honors those who embody courage, resilience and strength in the face of adversity.

“The Ashe Award is one of the most prestigious in sports. Recipients reflect the spirit of Arthur Ashe, possessing strength in the face of adversity, courage in the face of peril and the willingness to stand up for their beliefs no matter what the cost.”

Many felt Sam didn’t deserve the award. His youth and inexperience was cited along with an attempt to downplay the importance of the pre-draft announcement he was gay. Unfortunately, much of the criticism centered around Sam being gay.

Despite being largely silent except for these two events, Sam was accused of announcing he was gay in an effort to profit off the announcement. A common refrain underlying much of the criticism was that he should have just kept his mouth shut. On the one hand he was vilified because he might not make a roster and on the other hand he was vilified for possibly transitioning himself should his NFL career not work out.

Then came Dungy’s infamous “distraction” statement. This argument has to be the biggest bullshit in the history of sports. It’s code for “this person is doing something that I don’t approve.” It also ignores the responsibility of a head coach to deal with and handle situations like media attention.

In response to criticism over his comments, Dungy issued a head scratching “clarification” ranging from Oprah made me do it to it’s all the media’s fault. Perhaps Dungy forgot he is part of the media?

I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization.

I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.

When you parse it down you see why this argument fails to hold water. First, it’s somewhat hypocritical of Dungy to cite this when he himself has been part of the media attention associated with being “ground breaking.” Dungy of course being the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl in the NFL. Dungy also was very much in favor of Michael Vick being given another opportunity in the NFL.

Second, this same tired old argument was widely used to exclude minorities from first playing in and then coaching in the league. Dungy has spoken out in the past about the lack of minority coaching in both college and the pros. He surely understands the media attention that accompanies minorities being in ground breaking situations.

It’s difficult to process why someone who understands  discrimination would fail to recognize it in gay rights. You largely see the same arguments being used against Mike Sam that were used not only against minorities but against women as well. He isn’t qualified, he hasn’t done anything, and gays don’t belong in the league. Translation being it’s best to just keep your big mouth shut.

The distraction argument is also contradicted by the profit currently being made by the media and the league by Sam and his announcement. Sam currently has the sixth best selling jersey in the National Football League. For a seventh round draft pick who has yet to step foot on a professional football field that is simply amazing.

One person’s distraction is another person’s money making ticket and Sam sure does seem profitable for the league. It never hurts to add another fan base to your repertoire and the LGBT community fast becoming a power player in economics. The Mike Sam debate has been very profitable for media companies as well.

Even more head scratching is the argument that Mike Sam being an openly gay man would divide an NFL locker room. There is absolutely no evidence it divided the Mizzou team in fact all evidence to the contrary. NFL locker rooms are comprised of many different types of individuals. While some might care who sleeps with who no one seems to care to the extent it becomes a problem.

There are players in every locker room in the NFL who are married, have a girlfriend and a side chick. There are players who do not. There is no evidence these sleeping arrangements have any effect whatsoever on whether a team wins or loses. No one really seems to care. Why then is it a big deal who Mike Sam sleeps with?

Better yet, where is Tony Dungy speaking out against players sleeping around? Such conduct is also entirely against his religious beliefs. The silence there is deafening.

The sad but unfortunate truth is that portions of America are still uncomfortable with the thought of an openly gay NFL player. Which is all the more reason why Mike Sam is entirely deserving of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and why what he is doing is so terribly important.

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