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The NFL’s Systemic Homophobia

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There is no excuse other than homophobia for why Michael Sam is getting shut out of the NFL.

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  • Murc

    Okay. I’m gonna say it.

    The first successful openly gay player in the NFL is going to fall into one of two categories:

    1) Owner crams him down their teams throat.

    2) Guy isn’t just a solid player putting up solid numbers, but a superlative, dominant talent in his position such that not signing him makes you look balls-out insane.

    Anyone not in one of those buckets is going to be shut out. Hard.

    • Donalbain

      I think it will have to be someone who comes out AFTER they have established themself on a team.

  • jeer9

    Any chance with all those statistical anomalies (the comparisons with similarly skilled athletes) that he’d be able to win a lawsuit? Especially as they don’t want to let him play. Seems like the courts have a history of minorities successfully litigating these types of barriers.

    Sure wish the Pats were tolerant enough to give him a try. Christ, if they were willing to bring in Tebow for the practice squad, this guy has a lot more potential upside.

    • Mr. Rogers

      Putting aside how hard it would be to interpret the stats in court that’s not a fight he wants to have if the anti-Sam argument is about how he’d be a distraction. The article is likely correct that all he can do is keep pushing forward to play wherever he can until he gets enough experience/statistical weight to score his real chance.

      You’re right that it would be nice for one team to break out of this. Social weight and spending dollars are on their side if they do. If he’s given a fair chance and washes out they won’t accrue any blame for it; if he turns out to be a better than average player there are additional financial incentives for having a the breakout player. You would think having the eventual hagiographic biopic about them would tip the scales.

    • Scott Lemieux

      The fact that there’s no federal ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation, or ban in Texas or Missouri, would be a serious problem.

    • jeer9

      Putting aside how hard it would be to interpret the stats in court that’s not a fight he wants to have if the anti-Sam argument is about how he’d be a distraction.

      Yes, and it’s always irritating when highly qualified women go into “hysterics” about the glass ceiling. Seems to me we’re mixing up cause and effect.

      IANAL, but … On July 1, 2011, the EEOC ruled that job discrimination against lesbians, gays and bisexuals constituted a form of sex-stereotyping and thus violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII applies to and covers an employer “who has fifteen (15) or more employees for each working day in each of twenty or more calendar weeks in the current or preceding calendar year.”

      And I don’t see how the bona fide occupational qualifications defense withstands scrutiny: a direct relationship between the protected trait and the ability to perform the duties of the job, the BFOQ relates to the “essence” or “central mission of the employer’s business”, and there is no less-restrictive or reasonable alternative.

      Perhaps, though, that’s why teams in Missouri and Texas decided to be “open-minded” but ultimately dissatisfied. Not that we need much more evidence of collusion.

  • richard mayhew

    There could be another answer — Sam was a great college player but a marginal professional player. Here is what Football Outsiders said about him after the Combine last year after they ran his college production and Combine stats through a predictive model for edge rushers:

    SackSEER is not a fan of Sam’s production, which may be somewhat counter-intuitive considering that Sam was the co-defensive player of the year in the SEC -— widely acknowledged to be the best defensive conference in college football. But Sam was not consistently productive over his career: he had only nine sacks in his first 37 games with the Missouri Tigers. Although he certainly had a nice senior season with 11.5 sacks in 14 games, edge rushers who are one-hit wonders in their senior seasons rarely pan out in the NFL….

    Perhaps just as concerning is Sam’s average of less than a tenth of a pass defensed per game….

    To top it off, Sam’s Combine was even poorer than his 4.91 forty-yard dash time would suggest, as Sam scored below average on every drill that SackSEER cares about. Particularly poor were Sam’s vertical leap and three-cone drill, which were the second-worst and the tenth-worst, respectively, among the 320-plus edge rushers in SackSEER’s database. Sam’s three-cone, in fact, was almost a full second slower than teammate Kony Ealy, despite the latter being ten pounds heavier than the former. ….

    Before the Combine, some projected Sam as a third- or fourth-round pick. SackSEER thinks he’s closer to a seventh-round pick or an undrafted free agent.

    A player with that physical profile will bounce around the league on the fringes of a roster regardless of his backstory. The big exception would be if that player was a special teams demon where a decently stable career could be built in one place. But for regular defensive snaps, Sam is a marginal NFL caliber player.

    • elm

      A player with that physical profile will bounce around the league on the fringes of a roster regardless of his backstory.

      Except, Sam is not bouncing around the league. He hasn’t even gotten a single workout since the 7th week of last season. That he doesn’t have a huge contract is probably not the result of homophobia. The fact that he couldn’t even make a practice squad during the second half of the season probably is. (Plus, combine experience aside, he did well in the pre-season. Sure, it’s only the pre-season, but it’s the only NFL snaps he has and they suggested he could be a valuable player.)

      • richard mayhew

        But at that point, there is a much harder case to prove as there are 75 guys who are just as qualified as Sam for that last practice squad slot or two…. Edge rushers who can’t turn the corner on a pass rush and don’t do a great job of holding the edge against the run will have a hard time finding work in the NFL.

        • Mr. Rogers

          And yet the linked article points out a variety of people with lower skills/worse stats who have manged to do just that.

          This is putting aside the idea that between Sam’s announcement and the next day every team in the league reviewed all of his college performance and suddenly realized – at the same time – that they had all missed the signs of his pro inadequacy. Funny how that worked.

          • witlesschum

            Yeah, they make a really convincing case he’s being blackballed. The only question is exactly how unfair and stupid they’re being, because Sam sure seems like he’s in between a marginal practice squad type guy and a useful NFL DE.

            • Scott Lemieux

              I might post about this, but…I mean, Seattle probably evaluates and develops defensive talent better than any team in the league, and when Avril got hurt their pass rush completely vanished. Saying he’s just a marginal talent isn’t much of an argument; all teams have replacement-level talent on their roster, and a lot of it has less credentials than Sam.

              • Gator90

                I hope you do post about it. I watched a bunch of Sam’s college games and at least 2 of his NFL preseason games. The notion that he would be currently unemployed had he not come out as gay defies all reason.

            • mpowell

              Yeah, I was surprised by how strong their case was given that he is a marginal player. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a few teams didn’t look at him, but nobody? That’s pretty disappointing.

    • MikeJake

      He should go to the CFL. It’s not a league of gargantuan bodies, so he could actually play on the D line.

    • L2P

      But for regular defensive snaps, Sam is a marginal NFL caliber player.

      Even if he is truly marginal, most marginal players play. NFL rosters are littered with marginal players. This leaves the question: why, of all the marginal players available to NFL teams, isn’t Sam (the defensive player of the year at the best defensive conference) playing?

      • Craigo

        If the argument comes down to “He’s not any better than a bottom-rung player…but he’s not any worse!” then there is no good argument.

        There are hundreds of replacement-level or worse players at the margins of the NFL, both on rosters and not. To single out any one of them and wonder why he doesn’t have a contract is futile.

        To put it a different way, you’re getting it backwards. You’re looking at Sam as one of a few hundred marginal players and asking why he isn’t playing. That’s a fallacy; better to ask why he, of all of them, should he be playing. He had a poor combine, he’s a tweener, and had largely mediocre college numbers. Two teams have had him on their roster and found his performance wanting. Now: what’s the argument for him? That he’s gay? That he won a meaningless subjective honor?

        • Scott Lemieux

          To single out any one of them and wonder why he doesn’t have a contract is futile.

          Not when someone was an SEC defensive player of the year. Again, people are just ignoring the evidence in the piece; there’s essentially no precedent for a player with these credentials and being healthy not being given even a chance to earn a job.

          • Brien Jackson

            Wait, really? I;m not a proponent by any means, but, um…Tim Tebow?

  • Jim Caldwell

    I’d add him to the roster but that would mean cutting the back-up punter or the punter project on the practice squad (he’s all leg and balls), so no.

  • CJColucci

    I recall that Jackson Jeffcoat, the presumptively-straight son of former Cowboy Jim Jeffcoat, who plays the same position (though probably a 3-4 rather than a 4-3 end), was ranked slightly higher than Sam on some boards, didn’t get drafted at all. I don’t think he’s in the NFL now. I am convinced to a moral certainty that some teams won’t look at Sam because he’s gay, but a few teams did give him a shot. Maybe in a fair world a few other teams might have given him a practice squad position, but roughly comparable players at the margins are having careers no less marginal than Sam’s.

    • Jeffcoat played the entire 2014 season for the Washington Racists, outside of a few weeks when he was released. He even got a sack and an interception.

  • ricegol

    I understand the impulse of people to believe that homophobia has played a role in the failure of Sam to stick with a team. but the simple fact is that literally hundreds of good/great college players become eligible for the NFL every single year and there are simply not enough spots (with practice squads you are talking about 1600 total spots). and Sam is a classic tweener – not fast enough to play linebacker and too small to play defensive end. it’s not like Sam was a shoo-in Top 10 pick and then ended up in his current situation after his announcement – he was always marginal.

    having said that, another poster mentioned that the first openly gay NFL player will be an established star. I think that’s true – I can imagine a player who is already popular and known as kind of “quirky” because of an outgoing/flamboyant personality – think Chad OchoCino or Terrell Owens. because of his well-known quirkiness, his announcement will be less “shocking” to the mainstream sports culture.

  • Brien Jackson

    I don’t think it’s homophobia, per se, that’s hurting Sam. More specifically, it’s the Tebow Effect. Sam is probably not much more than a replacement level player, and no one wants to deal with a marginal talent who is going to bring that level of scrutiny. I mean, yeah, players get workouts all the time, and basically no one even knows they’re happening. If Sam takes a workout tomorrow it’s a front page story, and you’re guaranteed to get at least a handful of article about your bigotry if you decide you don’t want to offer him a spot.

  • CJColucci

    Most discrimination suits are brought by marginal hiring prospects and mediocre, easily-replaced employees. Very few organizations can afford these days to indulge bigotry against exceptional talents — assuming there is agreement in the field on what talent is. If you are inclined to discriminate, and you are not stupid, it is precisely against the marginal and mediocre that you will discriminate, because it will be hard to distinguish between discrimination and the ordinary outcome to be expected when the marginal and mediocre are involved.

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