Perhaps it's out of a desire to avoid taking up any more of the spotlight than is absolutely necessary, perhaps it's because he's worried he'll go too long without being drafted (or not be drafted at all), perhaps he just wants to be with his family on such a big weekend, but whatever it is: Michael Sam is making sure you don't see much of him this NFL draft weekend. He has turned down requests from ESPN and the NFL Network to follow him around, and while Darren Rovell, in his signature vague unquestioning manner, says "There will be cameras with Michael Sam following his reactions on Saturday," those cameras appear to be "the ones on his family's iPhones." Sam is keeping a low profile.
I might do the same. The NFL, with its irresistibly oppressive marketing force in full blight, has successfully turned its draft into a massive social experiment in brand management, with every human attribute sorted, filed and filleted into some middle-aged white guy's "checklist." Recognizable earthling emotions and thoughts that aren't part of the experience of being alive have no place or meaning during NFL draft week; anything other than "want" and "motor" is simply a distraction from the act of destroying yourself for the amusement of others -- and a non-guaranteed contract -- for two years or so (at best.) The whole process is dehumanizing and depressing, and of course none of us can get enough of it. Michael Sam should avoid publicity this weekend not because he's gay; he should do it because he's a sentient being.
But it is amazing how much the narrative has shifted. We have spent several months since his announcement wondering where exactly Sam would be drafted. Now we're all concern trolling about whether he'll have a camera on him while team after team passes on him. And wondering whether Sam won't be drafted at all.
It's a legitimate question, suddenly, whether Sam will in fact make the cut. With its signature humility and perspective, Pro Football Talk quoted a reporter who said scouts saw Sam as a "non-entity." (Don't feel bad, Michael: They see everyone that way, at least in a Living Creature sense.) PFT still said it would be a "shock" if Sam wasn't drafted, while couching it with a "casual fans (and non-fans) of football will suspect homophobia" if Sam isn't picked. (The implication being that only those who don't understand the game would ever suspect the NFL, of all places, of having an issue in this regard.) Nate Silver gave it a solid once-over at Five Thirty Eight and decided Sam was "50-50." Sam might have been the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, but, as our own Mike Tanier has pointed out, he's still a tweener, someone "too small for defensive end and too inexperienced for outside linebacker."
That said: In that draft profile of Sam, written three months ago in the wake of Sam's announcement, Tanier still said Sam was a "mid- to late-round pick." That was the general consensus after Sam came out as gay. Even the much-derided Sports Illustrated story that quoted anonymous general managers and scouts as saying the NFL wasn't ready for a gay man in the locker room, the one Slate said "encouraged sources to talk smack about Sam," never seemed to think Sam wouldn't be drafted at all.
Now, some of the nebulous, groaning platitudes in that SI piece -- "He projected that it will impact Sam's draft status 'quite a bit'" -- are looking sort of true. It's just not as blatant and obviously dickish as that story made it look; everyone's more subtle now. The story has somehow turned into a team having to draft Sam because he's gay. The transformation has been subtle but undeniable. Sam's combine showing was considered "average" at the time; now he is described as looking "like a fish out of water." (That would be a bad combine performance indeed, with all the flopping around on the ground and the gasping.) When Sam improved his showing at Missouri's pro day a month later, the general consensus was overwhelming that he would be drafted. Russ Lande, a Sports on Earth contributor, said then that "It could go anywhere from fourth to seventh round, but I feel very confident that he's going to be drafted. The reality is when you pull up the film he's a really good football player. His production warrants being a third- to fifth-round draft pick, so I think he's going to go in that range." Funny how you don't hear much about Sam's pro day anymore: Everyone just wants to talk about the combine. No matter what Sam does -- even when he makes it plain and obvious how little he's looking for publicity at this point -- they keep moving the goalposts on him.
This is how a guy goes from "not an elite talent" to "mid-to-late-rounder" to "will he get drafted?" to "suddenly this guy doesn't want cameras on him at the draft!" without much actually happening. This is what the SI piece was saying, however clumsily: When the machine of the NFL and the NFL draft gets churning, everything turns into sinister generalized garble like "distractions" and "whispers about makeup." Four months ago Sam was a college stud whose stardom wouldn't cross over to the NFL but still would have a place. Three months ago Sam was a trailblazer who no longer could hide who he was. Two months ago Sam was somewhat disappointing at the combine. One month later he improved at his pro day. Now Sam is supposed to consider himself lucky to be drafted, a "non-entity," with people hounding him about cameras maybe or maybe not following him around on draft day, as if he created being gay to get publicity, as if he thought this was going to help.
Sam is still the same player, the same athlete, he always was. But suddenly the act of drafting him feels almost subversive. This might be less about homophobia than it is the NFL culture's institutionalized rejection of anything that doesn't treat players like faceless cattle. Or maybe they really are freaked out about gays. Either way: It's repulsive, and we should stop pretending it isn't.