Last year, with a seventh round pick, the St. Louis Rams made Michael Sam the first openly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. Months later, the Rams cut Sam, making him the first openly gay player to be released by an NFL team. Sam was later signed and then released by the Dallas Cowboys.
BL: Your recent article is peppered with numbers and statistics, but I want to start with the simplest of them. In late January of last year, Sam was predicted to be the 90th pick in the draft. And days later, that projection had dropped to No. 160. What happened?
The fact that teams aren't even banking on his potential tells you that there's something going on that has nothing to do with what happened on the football field.Cyd Zeigler, Outsports
CZ: Well, Michael Sam came out as gay. And people [question] whether Michael Sam was good enough to make it in the NFL or not and if he was tall enough or fast enough. Well, a year ago, before he came out as gay, he was projected to be a third-round pick by CBS Sports. And shortly after he came out as gay, they dropped him down to 160th.
Anonymous NFL team front office sources said they did not want him on their team, so it was pretty clear a year ago from what people said they were going to do that he was gonna be hurt by that.
BL: You talk about anonymous sources. Did anybody with whom you spoke acknowledge that Sam was discriminated against because of his sexual orientation?
CZ: No, no one would say that. Everyone would say, "I don't know." "I don't have evidence." "I don't have proof." "I haven't been told that." But people who look at the numbers — you know, Mike Freeman from Bleacher Report looked at it and said, "Yup, it's pretty clear that this guy should be in the NFL."
BL: You compared Michael Sam to the other Defensive Players of the Year from the big five football conferences over the past 20 years. That’s 89 players all together. How many of them did not make an NFL roster, at least temporarily?
[sidebar title="Meet MLB's New Ambassador For Inclusion" width="630" align="right"]Retired outfielder Billy Bean discusses his new job and tells Bill Littlefield about his experience playing in MLB while concealing his sexual orientation.[/sidebar]
CZ: Well, they all made a roster. And they all didn't just make a roster. They all made an active roster their rookie season. Because guys like Michael Sam, what you're banking on is potential. And given what he's done in college and given what he did in the preseason, he clearly has potential.
Nobody's saying he's going to be a Pro Bowler or a Hall of Famer. He might be. But that's why you keep young guys like Michael on your team, because he has the potential. And the fact that teams aren't even banking on his potential tells you that there's something going on that has nothing to do with what happened on the football field.
BL: All right, so if it wasn’t the statistics that accounted for him not finding a job in the NFL then it had to be his attitude, right? Or the fact that Sam was considered by all to be a major distraction in the locker room?
CZ: [Laughs] I like where you're going with this.
BL: We gotta laugh, right? Because I don't know what the alternative is.
CZ: It's great because, right, you look at the 'problems in the locker room' and 'was he a distraction.' And I talked to former teammates of his with the Cowboys, with the Missouri Tigers, players who played with him with the Rams, coaches, front office executives — they all said Michael was the perfect teammate. He was well-liked in the locker room. The few extra cameras that showed at practice weren't a distraction. It was a little more attention but it wasn't a distraction. And [they said] that Michael didn't bring any negativity to the team or the locker room or any other way you could slice and dice that.
BL: Cyd, this conversation is discouraging me. I have to acknowledge that. I was under the impression that Michael Sam was the NFL’s one, uncontested positive story of 2014. Did he end up making any progress for gay athletes?
The idea that you can't have a gay man in an NFL locker room, you can't say that anymore cause he's been in two of them.Cyd Zeigler, Outsports
CZ: Oh, of course. First, of all, Michael just coming out and displaying the courage that he did. He had everything to lose. This wasn't some guy who's been in the league 10 years, had an established career, and Michael had the courage to come out of the closet, and he inspired a lot of people to do so. He gave strength to a lot of young kids. So that's extremely positive.
The fact that he was drafted was a great step. He stepped foot on an NFL field in the preseason. He practiced with two different teams. The idea that you can't have a gay man in an NFL locker room, you can't say that anymore cause he's been in two of them. So there was a lot of progress. The only thing that didn't happen is the ultimate crowning glory that is Michael participating in a regular season game.
BL: It sounds as if perhaps you think the chances are slim that NFL general managers are going to read your article and say, "By gosh, he's right. We better give that Sam kid a try in 2015"?
CZ: I want answers. Everyone I talked to said, "Michael's a great kid. He just needs to get on the field more." "He has a lot of talent. He has the talent to be in the NFL." "He was a perfect teammate." I just want people to explain why. I want people to answer the question. I want more people to ask the question.
Unfortunately, still, most people in the NFL media haven't addressed this. Sports Illustrated hasn't addressed it even though Peter King was great in talking with me for the article. The NFL.com and NFL Network, they have not addressed this at all. Why? Why won't they just talk about it?
This segment aired on February 14, 2015.