Where is that Jim Carville sign from the '92 Clinton campaign? Roger Goodell could use it right about now. The slogan "It's the economy, stupid'' doesn't precisely meet the NFL commissioner's needs, but it will suffice. Goodell isn't working with people who traffic in a lot of nuance.
Whenever he finished reading Sports Illustrated's anonymous quotes from eight NFL execs and coaches about Missouri defensive end Michael Sam's decision to disclose publicly that he is gay, the most profoundly capitalist valves in his heart must have seized up. The SI survey indicated that all eight saw Sam losing draft appeal because of his revelation. The commissioner couldn't have been surprised by the sentiments, but the language in the piece expressed such an overwhelming craving to live in the past, he has to worry that his league has staked out a position as the MySpace, circa mid-2007, of American professional sports.
From a veteran scout:
"I just know with this going on, this is going to drop him down [in the draft]. There's no question about it. It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier?'"
From an NFL player personnel assistant:
"In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game."
"A man's-man game"? I'm sure he said that with an extremely straight face.
This is how a multi-billion dollar corporation un-brands itself, one retrograde brain fart at a time. Goodell could give these guys and their ilk some sensitivity training or leadership counseling, but the lessons wouldn't take quickly enough. A basic, half-day business course seems the best option, stressing the fact that if Sam remains on the shelf after May's draft, the NFL will damage its most important fan demographic -- the cohort that hasn't been cultivated yet.
The NFL has a core audience of untouchables. They aren't going anywhere. On the whole, they are as culturally static as these anonymous coaches and executives. They're not eager to see change, but they're not going to re-arrange their Sunday afternoons because Sam has declared his sexual orientation and may have encouraged others to join him. When they write "Who cares?'' beneath a blog post, they may be influenced by homophobia, but mostly they are drowning in apathy over any issue that diverts them from the glory of the game itself.
That audience is not enough. In a business as large as the NFL, growth and survival are synonymous. The league wants to colonize Europe and initiate more women into its cult. The newfound knowledge about long-term brain trauma threatens this manifest destiny. So will any sign that a league full of players styling themselves as "grown-ass men" can't handle the complexities of sexuality like adults.
The best takeaway from the John Branch piece in The New York Times, where Sam confirmed that he is gay, came from the defensive end's teammates at the University of Missouri. When Sam revealed his sexual orientation to them, they accepted him for all that he had always been to them. One teammate accompanied Sam to a gay pride parade; others joined him at a gay bar. This is the future of football. His peers gave the NFL a template.
College recruiters all learned to send text messages as soon as they realized that was the way to land a star of this generation. Professional coaches and execs can learn to steer a locker room away from homophobia for the same practical reasons. Failing to do so will inhibit communication with most players born after 1993. They won't bother with outrage. They'll just see their ostensible leaders as old-coot embarrassments.
Sam's agent revealed that scouts, acting on rumors about his sexual orientation, have been asking whether he'd had a girlfriend or been seen with women recently. They have not asked the same questions about other clients of the agent. The NFL has an anti-discrimination policy prohibiting such behavior, and Goodell sent copies out last year, when some execs seemed to be prying into sexual matters before the draft. They won't stop because of some paperwork, or media scoldings. They'll knock it off when they see a critical mass of eye rolls from younger players, all of them thinking: "Eww, what a bunch of petty, gossipy wimps.''
Sam said some teammates didn't fully embrace his revelation, but they did nothing to make him feel unwelcome. He was the MVP of their 12-2, Cotton-Bowl-winning team, and his sexual orientation became incidental to his identity as a football player. They all co-existed.
No doubt, in the pros, he could encounter teammates with religious beliefs that reject his sexual orientation. The bosses quoted in the SI piece should prepare to negotiate that divide. Even the most myopic of them should be able to craft a reasonable case from the current Pope's position on gay priests: "Who am I to judge?''
That item would make a perfect talking-point footnote to a Carville-inspired memo.
In the hours after the New York Times story appeared, journalists and fans hailed Sam as courageous. In the piece itself, he comes across as buoyantly confident, the hallmark of a successful athlete. It's funny when the old guard frets over the distraction factor in a gay player's decision to come out. Esera Tuaolo, who played offensive line in the NFL and came out after he retired, said he never performed up to his potential because he lived in terror of being found out. He did not want to call too much attention to himself. This is a theme among many people who lived in and left the closet. The freedom allowed them to soar, as writers, artists, athletes, scientists, teachers, public servants.
Again, this is capitalism at work, talent unfettered by fear, seeking its highest place in a market. Michael Sam has removed the inhibitions that threatened his upward reach. He doesn't have to hide who he is or whom he loves. Anyone who prefers him to be silent favors a distraction from the pursuit of excellence.
The Sports Illustrated piece included a short list of football-based excuses for why Sam might drop down in the draft, or not be chosen at all. Too many of his 11.5 sacks in 2013 came against easy opponents, while his size (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) makes him a defensive tweener, neither a pure end nor an absolute linebacker. But before Sunday, he had been projected as roughly a third-rounder, and been invited to the scouting combine, held later this month. (Sports on Earth colleague Mike Tanier has viewed tape and written a column on Sam's skills, and via Twitter Sunday night, he projected Sam going in the fourth to sixth round.)
We have to wait until May to see how well the elders, the decision-makers, learn to lead by kickoff of the draft.
You're on the clock, boys. Make sure it's ticking forward.