published Tuesday, February 11th, 2014

Greeson: Ability should decide Michael Sam's pro progress

  • photo
    North outside linebacker Michael Sam (55) of Missouri runs on to the field before the Senior Bowl NCAA game in Mobile, Ala. in this Jan. 25, 2014, file photo.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Michael Sam told the world Sunday that he is gay.

He's a guy trying to make an NFL roster -- yes, he was a decorated over-achiever as a senior at Missouri, but he is the classic 'tweener who routinely confounds NFL front offices -- and now he's become the most famous rookie wannabe this side of Johnny Football and Jadeveon Clowney.

May Sam thrive or fail on his talents rather than trending on Twitter. May he land a spot if he deserves it, and may he find work if professional football does not prove fruitful.

But the layers of his story became common knowledge only this week. He has been part of a Missouri mission that has renewed the universal spirit of the locker room by sharing his story with the rest of us.

Yes, Michael Sam told the world Sunday he is gay. He told his teammates in August.

Sam was a breakthrough surprise for the Missouri Tigers, who made a surprising breakthrough in the SEC East. He was the SEC co-defensive player of the year on the field and a linchpin leader off it. In truth, his announcement to his teammates is a testament to the Tigers' ability to bond and guard his secret jealously.

In fact, the locker-room culture that took a tsunami of criticism in the wake of the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito bullying incident with the Miami Dolphins has received a renewed shot of camaradie thanks to the unity and accompanying success the Missouri Tigers enjoyed.

The Tigers had Sam's back, through the lofty highs of an improbable SEC East title, and through all the national notoriety of being a potential BCS contender. The Tigers and the entire football program cared more for Sam the person than Sam the performer, keeping his secret because it was more his than theirs and more personal than public.

Sam's decision to share his status with the world was made possible by his courage and the trust of his teammates. That's -- courage and trust -- the fundamental and controllable definition of athletic success from a wide-arcing and an individual perspective.

That said, Sam the person is no different today than he was a month, a year or several years ago. He is who he is and wanted to get that out there before someone else delivered his message. That's commendable. And in the sports world, for Sam the player it's rather incidental and monumental.

We are blessed and cursed that sports in general is the last remaining avenue in our society that is close to a true meritocracy. You mostly get what you earn; more times than not you earn what you get.

Can you make plays, whether you are black or brown or white or polka-dotted? Can you win games, whether you date Joe or Jo-Anne? If the answer is yes, the predicate of the previous questions becomes secondary.

By that logic, sports should be a haven for our differences in society. Sports in their blessed pursuit of victory have allowed for social change, and therefore when it comes to Sam's public announcement the non-sports should matter little. If Sam, a guy projected anywhere from a third- to a fifth-round pick as an undersized pass-rushing specialist, can make plays, little else matters.

But the warmth provided by the blanket of meritocracy is two-sided. Will Sam's sexuality be a distraction to teammates or to the mission of winning in the NFL? If so, it matters, not unlike any other characteristic or persona, especially for a player who is projected as a mid-round pick. Will an NFL team be willing to accept the expected media interest and the possible backlash -- not from protesters per se as much as the potential for heightened interest and focus about whether Sam makes the team or the starting lineup or whatever, and if he doesn't, is it because of his play or his preferences -- that will come from Sam's presence?

To say no one should care is fine. And hopeful. Sam said he wanted to own his truth -- a commendable and understandable notion that was proven true and clear by Sam's openness to his Missouri teammates.

But to expect a shrug of the shoulders and a nod and then off to the next drill as if Sam announced he's left-handed or has a speech impediment is obtuse. In fact, Sam and his representatives told the folks at outsports.com about the planning and preparation that went into the how and when about making the announcement.

With this news, whether he wants it or not, Sam has become the most notable and newsworthy rookie in this draft class.

Maybe one day an announcement like Sam's will be a normal occurrence -- and that may be the future in a world that is more open to the differences of our society -- and Sam could be a groundbreaking part of that.

Still, whether he plays on Sundays next fall will have nothing to do with who he dates. Nor should it.

Can he make plays? We'll see.

Can he find a locker room as trusting and together as Missouri's? Sam can only hope so.

Contact Jay Greeson at jgreeson@timesfreepress.com oe 423-757-6273. You can follow him on Twitter @jgreesontfp and listen to "Press Row" with Jay and TFP sports writer David Paschall 3-6 p.m. weekdays on ESPN 105.1 FM and at timesfreepress.com.

about Jay Greeson...

Jay was named the Sports Editor of the Times Free Press in 2003 and started with the newspaper in May 2002 as the Deputy Sports Editor. He was born and raised in Smyrna, Ga., and graduated from Auburn University before starting his newspaper career in 1997 with the Newnan (Ga.) Times Herald. Stops in Clayton and Henry counties in Georgia and two years as the Sports Editor of the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal preceded Jay’s ...

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