Why Michael Sam’s Draft Position Makes Sense

Why Michael Sam’s Draft Position Makes Sense
May 15, 2014

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)

“Lately some people have proclaimed victory in the battle for equal treatment of gays and lesbians. Last month a group of gay marriage supporters urged their allies to be magnanimous in the final period of the “hard-won victory over a social order in which LGBT people were fired, harassed, and socially marginalized” and not to seek to punish remaining dissenters from the new perspective.”

“But this past weekend has reminded us that we haven’t quite achieved “opportunity to the talented.” Michael Sam was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the country’s strongest football conference, yet many people wondered if any NFL team would draft the league’s first openly gay player. Turns out they were right to wonder. Here’s a revealing chart published in yesterday’s Washington Post… Every other SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the past decade, including the athlete who shared the award this year with Michael Sam, was among the top 33 picks in the draft, and only one was below number 17. Does that mean that being gay cost Michael Sam 232 places in the draft, compared to his Co-Defensive Player of the Year? Maybe not. There are doubts about Sam’s abilities at the professional level. But there are doubts about many of the players who were drafted ahead of him, in the first 248 picks this year. Looking at this chart, I think it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sam paid a price for being openly gay.”

“Before Sam came off the board, the writers and analysts who make up the broader NFL community on Twitter were becoming more and more furious. I got texts from friends who barely care about football, seriously concerned that Sam was going to go undrafted. A narrative was emerging: The league was avoiding Sam because of his sexuality. It’s unknowable what motivated individual teams, but the possibility is absolutely worthy of consideration. However, the most frequently cited evidence is, if I’m being honest, a little disingenuous. If you were following the story, you’ve probably heard it: Sam was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year (co–Defensive Player of the Year with C.J. Mosley, actually). Mosley went off the board 17th, continuing an eight-year run of SEC Defensive Players of the Year coming off the board in the first round. If the SEC Defensive Player of the Year always comes off the board in the first round, then why not Sam — if not in the first round, then at least in the middle of the draft?”

“Well, because that’s not a very substantial sample, nor one that means much in terms of predictive value — that award has been around only since 2003. There are actually plenty of examples of players who found themselves in similar situations. For a seven-year stretch from 2002 to 2008, the six players1 who won the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award were all drafted in the first round. The 2009 award winner, Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones, was drafted in the sixth round, 185th overall. The Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award went to players who would be taken within the top 37 selections five years in a row, from 2000 to 2004. The 2005 DPOY was Nick Reid, and he went undrafted. An even more appropriate comparison might be one of the co–Big 12 Defensive Players of the Year this season, Texas lineman Jackson Jeffcoat. Jeffcoat, who had 13 sacks, was one of the two Associated Press All-Americans at defensive end this year. The other was Michael Sam. Despite that strong résumé, Jeffcoat went unselected in New York.”

And Pro Football Talk echoes the comparison: “Maybe Jeffcoat, who signed as an undrafted free agent with the Seahawks, will prove the teams that passed on him wrong and play like a guy who should have gone in the first three rounds. And maybe Sam will prove everyone wrong, too. But I believe Sam was a seventh-round pick because he’s a seventh-round talent.” Indeed, in a sense, it was a good thing Sam even got drafted, given how poorly he performed at the NFL Combine.

“The silent story in Indianapolis was the horrific performance by Michael Sam. He finished with the sixth-lowest grade of all 268 players, only besting three quarterbacks, an FCS offensive lineman, and a linebacker on one of the worst defenses in the Big Ten. Sam’s story is a polarizing one even though it shouldn’t be — your author is rooting for him — but the combine is the ultimate objective test, and Sam clearly failed this one. Everyone knows that the combine bears only tangential reality to playing football, but a miserable showing in Indianapolis won’t do anything to dissuade fears that Sam doesn’t have the physical ability to be a starting defensive end or outside linebacker in the pros.”

As I noted to Joe Weisenthal on Twitter during the draft, you typically draft guys like Sam in the sixth and seventh round: players who have good college numbers, or had a good year, but don’t project to have the physically freakish capability needed to succeed in the pro league. A good college performance may suggest that the player has a little more upside than his physical tools would project — but especially with players outside the skill positions, NFL scouts are overwhelmingly more concerned with physical tools than college performance, because the pro game is a different game.

Sam’s likely career as a seventh round pick projects as that of a journeyman backup and a player on special teams and in DL rotation, not as a longterm starter or Pro Bowler (like Patrick Peterson, Eric Berry, Patrick Willis, or Demeco Ryans — all compared to Sam as  prior SEC Defensive Players of the Year in Boaz’s chart). This isn’t to say that’s a bad thing: an example of a very successful NFL career for a seventh round defensive end of similar size and speed to Sam is that of Tully Banta-Cain, a pass-rushing specialist who rarely started over the course of his NFL tenure but was a key playmaking component of two Patriots Super Bowl teams. That’s an exceptional career for a guy with Tully Banta-Cain’s size, strength, and professional resume — but no one would compare Tully Banta-Cain to Patrick Willis, or be surprised that the former went in the seventh round and the latter in the first (though even Willis had to have an awesome combine to get there).

But stepping back from all this football talk: Boaz comes to the conclusion that the NFL was likely biased against Michael Sam for being openly gay not by looking at Sam’s individual performance, but by comparing him to one class he inhabits — the media award of SEC Defensive Player of the Year. There’s something telling about this little nod toward collectivism in Boaz’s critique. Sam’s being a member of that class of college football award winners doesn’t say anything here or there about the quality of that award, any more than C.J. Mosley’s (or any more than the Heisman told us about the ability of Troy Smith compared to Cam Newton). Nor does it say anything either here or there about the ability of someone who is gay or not gay to play football well. Boaz writes: “Let’s continue to look forward to a society in which it’s not news that a Jewish, Catholic, African-American, Mormon, redneck, or gay person achieves a personal goal.” I agree! That’s why viewing Sam as an individual, who should be evaluated as an individual based on his performance in his chosen field, is so important.

That’s what teams are uncertain about. While there would certainly be higher media attention and the potential for locker-room tension over Sam, that hardly seems to be a widespread phenomenon. This is a “just win, baby” league still, where NFL owners and General Managers care a lot more about rings, ticket sales, TV contracts and apparel deals than anything else. This is a league that tolerates all sorts of personalities and media firestorms of all stripes in order to pursue that aim. Maybe you could make the case that one or two owners could have such motivations, but it makes absolutely no sense for 31 owners and GMs to have passed up on Sam if he was such an obvious winner, missing out on drafting a superstar in the making because they are motivated by discrimination? The profit motive, the power of the marketplace, and the pressure to win all go against that idea.

Of course, I have no inside knowledge of whether any teams were scared off of picking Sam because of homophobia. But there was at least one team that was reportedly hesitant to pick him because they feared a backlash should they have to cut himBack to Grantland (emphasis mine):

“I spoke to one NFL team that suggested it was interested in drafting Sam and had no concerns about him fitting into its locker room or creating any distractions. The team was instead worried what the public perception would be if it drafted and then cut him — and this team had projected Sam as an extremely late pick, likely to be on its roster bubble — even if it made the move solely for football-related reasons.”

This is the real thing the NFL is concerned about: as a seventh round tweener DE/LB, the odds don’t favor a long career for Sam. Maybe he’ll beat those odds, and the league would love it if he does. If he has a long and productive career, the league office would be overjoyed as will most fans. But this unnamed team is acknowledging that this cuts both ways, and they fear that whether he succeeds or fails, Sam will not be viewed as an individual player, and instead as a representative of a class, and that the team that cuts him will be accused of bias or homophobia or worse.

For the 31 NFL teams that passed on Sam, that’s no longer a concern; for the Rams, it could suddenly become a big one. And if Sam eventually gets cut and there is such a backlash, the next openly gay player could face a harder road, not an easier one… not because of their own abilities, but because of the perceived inability of teams to treat them equally, as just another player.

I agree with Boaz that we want a marketplace open to talent wherever it is, but that marketplace also has to allow you to say someone isn’t talented enough to succeed in it without being accused of crippling bias. After all, what could be more ludicrous than viewing a football player through the reductive analytical lens of whom he has sex with? And yet people will do it, just like David Boaz.

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[First published at The Federalist.]

Benjamin Domenech

Benjamin Domenech (bdomenech@heartland.org) is a senior fellow at The Heartland Institute. Domenech... (read full bio)