If any player in the traditional “man’s man’’ world of the National Football League is homophobic in the least, or if anyone else in the 21st century continues to hold such bigoted biases, those people will have to shut up and deal with it. At around 4 p.m. Pacific time on an extraordinary Saturday in America, Michael Sam smashed a piece of congratulatory cake into the face of his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, and kissed him on the lips for several seconds.
And then, Sam kissed his boyfriend again on the lips for several seconds.
A barrier never thought breakable has fallen. Pro football has its first openly gay player, courtesy of the St. Louis Rams, who saved a league from embarrassment and scorn when it chose Sam with the 249th pick of the NFL draft. The Rams are owned by Stan Kroenke, who not only graduated from the University of Missouri but is a major donor and presence at the school where Sam played football. If other NFL franchises were privately skittish about drafting Sam — not because he is gay, necessarily, but because of the media circus that will accompany him — the Rams prefer to be proud, progressive pioneers.
As the draft’s third and final day dragged into a seventh and final round, it appeared increasingly possible that Sam would not be drafted. While the league is filled with undrafted free agents every season — 530 were scattered across the 32 rosters last December — some members of the gay community would have viewed a Sam draft snub as a monumental slight. Though considered, at 6-1 and 260 pounds, to be undersized as a pro defensive end and too slow to be a linebacker, didn’t Sam accomplish enough as the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year — 11.5 sacks, 19 tackles for loss — to at least warrant being drafted? Who were these draftees from Marist, Maine and McGill University, anyway? Was the “man’s man’’ league rejecting a person with more courage than most people on Earth?
“For them not to select him would be very problematic,” Cyd Zeigler, founder of OutSports.com, told NBC News before the draft. “If he isn’t selected, it’s a public black eye on the league.”
Seven picks from that black eye, Sam received the phone call at his agent’s San Diego home. He burst into tears, as his boyfriend hugged him and rubbed his bicep, and they kissed for the first of several times. Minutes later, Sam was smiling and raising two index fingers for a photo he tweeted, thanking the Rams and St. Louis.
“I’m using every ounce of this to achieve greatness!!’’ Sam wrote.
The scene was symbolic, time-capsule material. But all was not as well as the pictures suggested. When it was suggested to Sam that going public with his sexuality contributed to his freefall to the final minutes of the final round, he was anything but poliically correct. From the kiss — which will be viewed by some as an unnecessarily outward display of homesexuality — to his strong opinions after the draft, this story will continue to be explosive in the coming months.
“From last season alone, I should’ve been in the first three rounds. SEC Defensive Player of the Year, All-American,” Sam said hours later in a media session. “You know what, who knows? Who knows? Only the people who sit in the war room know. They saw Michael Sam, day after day, they scratched it off the board. That was their loss. But St. Louis kept me on that board. And you know what? I feel like I’m a (Jadeveon) Clowney, a first draft pick. I’m proud of where I am now.”
Will he be motivated, like Johnny Manziel, by the rejection of so many teams? “Every team that passed me, I was thinking how I’m going to sack their quarterback,’’ Sam said. “Let me tell you something. If we were playing the Vikings right now, I’ll probably have three sacks the first game.’’ The Vikings, who had three seventh-round picks, ignored Sam.
He immediately was greeted via Twitter by one of the team’s best players, defensive end Robert Quinn, who wrote, “Welcome to the squad.’’ Loaded with the explosive talent of Quinn and Chris Long and reinforcements Eugene Sims and William Hayes, the defensive end position in St. Louis isn’t exactly the most conducive path for Sam to make an NFL roster. But while he turned off scouts with a poor performance at the scouting combine, the Rams will give him every chance to stick as a special teams player because of Sam’s best traits: heart and desire. Indeed, the franchise will be bombarded by media — far beyond the sports realm — from the day he reports this week into training camp in July and August. Bring it on, says coach Jeff Fisher.
“In a world of diversity we live in, I am honored to be a part of this,” Fisher told ESPN. “I don’t want it to become an unusual distraction for his teammates but him as well.’’
The Rams will have to manage the media circus, making sure his teammates aren’t irritated by over-the-top media coverage that will be disproportionate to his potential standing on the roster. “I don’t have any concern whatsoever,’’ Fisher told the NFL Network. “We drafted a good football player.’’
Said Long, per ESPN.com: “Obviously people are going to make something out of it. He’s not the first gay player to ever play football. He might be the first openly gay professional football player, but there’s all types of people from all over in an NFL locker room, it really is a melting pot and it never ceases to amaze me how a locker room can just mesh, people from all different walks of life, so I don’t think it’s an issue. He’s coming to a really good D-line room.”
Sadly, he will face ignorance in some corners of that locker room, on the field during games and in the stands. I needn’t remind you that the league is still stinging from a Miami Dolphins bullying scandal, in which Richie Incognito and his partners in slime abused Jonathan Martin and others with insults — including homophobic slurs. In fact, it took only a couple of minutes after the Kiss Seen Around The Sports World for the first negative feedback to roll in via Twitter.
“ESPN… You serious right now?’’ wrote University of Texas quarterback Case McCoy, brother of NFL quarterback Colt McCoy.
There was more — from Miami, mind-boggling as it sounds. Second-year Dolphin Don Jones tweeted this after Sam’s selection and kissing session: “OMG … horrible.’’ And we thought the locker-room culture was changing there. Anyone running that operation?
“I was made aware of it and I was disappointed in those comments,” new general manager Dennis Hickey said. “That’s not what we stand for as an organization. The draft weekend is a culmination for so many players, their lifetime achievement of their dream to achieve a goal for Michael Sam and all the other players. It’s a celebration. … I think it’s a great thing for the league.”
As for Mike Pouncey, one of Incognito’s co-conspirators, he apparently hasn’t learned his lesson, either. After the Dolphins drafted tackle Ja’Wuan James in the first round, Pouncey tweeted, “Great pick! I can’t wait for our gifts he’s getting us lol.’’
Life Of Loser.
Sam knows what awaits him. He’s ready, ready as he can be. “You know what, I knew what I was coming into. I’m not afraid to answer questions. Are there going to be idiots out there that say some stupid stuff? Yeah,” he said. “I’m not worried about that. I’m worrying about the guy next to me, the guy in front of me. I have to prove myself.”
Yes, haters, the National Football League and advanced forms of society are very serious about this. Gays should be allowed opportunities in life without prejudice, and if you don’t like it in pro football, well, you should be forced to watch the video of Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend, over and over, until you realize the world has changed and you are hopelessly out of touch.