It was the kiss seen ’round the world. ESPN broadcast on May 10 the reaction of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam to news that he was being drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the 7th round. In the segment, Sam is seen crying with joy at the news and kissing his partner, Vito Cammisano.
He had recently come out as gay and would be the first openly gay player in the NFL. For many in the LGBT community, it represented a major step toward more diversity in professional sports.
“The definition of masculinity shifted today, whether consciously or not,” said Wade Davis, a former NFL player who is the executive director of the You Can Play Project, which works at combatting homophobia in sports. “[D]uring the hypermasculine NFL draft, a man kissed another man on national television.”
The celebration was cut short last weekend when the Rams cut the young defensive end. Sam was not selected for the alternate practice team, either.
But how much does the crushing disappointment undermine Sam’s historic moment, and the progress he’s already made?
“He is a hero no matter what. And a pathfinder,” said longtime LGBT advocate and author Michelangelo Signorile, now editor-at-large for Huffington Post Gay Voices. “It doesn’t seem so in the moment, but the first one always takes the heat — think back to Ellen at the height of her show in the ’90s. She lost a lot. But now, she’s the biggest star on daytime TV. And others have followed.”
But not everyone is as optimistic — as some say Sam’s sexual orientation is the reason he was cut from the team, despite NFL analyst Bill Polian’s insistence it was all about his skills on the field. “As I’ve said from the outset, he’s a one-dimensional player,” Polian told the Daily News Sunday.
Among those who say homophobia undoubtedly played a part in Sam’s being cut, some were NFL pundits who side-eyed the claim that the decision was merely a neutral sports-related one.
12 players had 2.5 or more sacks this preseason. 10 are on 53-man rosters. One on practice squad. And last, Michael Sam, hasn’t found work.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) September 1, 2014
Michael Sam performed much better than most expected and still isn’t even on a practice squad?
— Ross Tucker (@RossTuckerNFL) August 31, 2014
Mike Freeman, the NFL writer for BleacherReport.com, said Sam was cut because of “old-fashioned bigotry.”
“It can’t be stressed enough how Sam not being signed despite a productive preseason is almost unprecedented,” Freeman wrote in a post on BleacherReport. Freeman said he believes homophobia played a crucial role and said he was told teams were skittish about the media attention that would accompany signing the openly gay player. “Teams want to sign Michael Sam,” he wrote, “but fear the media attention.”
Responding to Sports Illustrated writer Peter King, who quotes NFL “team architects” as saying Sam isn’t being chosen because they want to avoid “media circuses,” Outsports.com writer Jim Buzinski noted the NFL has signed — and rewarded — players like Tim Tebow, former quarterback for the Denver Broncos and New York Jets, whose religious displays received much media attention. The NFL has also reinstated players arrested in domestic violence cases (Ray Rice) or animal cruelty cases (Michael Vick).
Buzzfeed’s Dan Oshinsky agreed, adding to Buzinski’s list of NFL “distractions” in a post entitled “17 Players the NFL Will Let Play This Year (And One They Won’t).”
In an email to IBTimes, Buzinksi said he would have had a much easier time ruling out the role of homophobia if Sam had made the practice team.
“There are 320 such [practice squad] jobs and he played well enough to make a squad,” Buzinski said of Sam’s performance. “In fact, of the 12 players with as many quarterback sacks as he in the preseason, 11 have jobs and he does not. That tells me his being openly gay is still a problem for some teams.”