Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive end and NFL hopeful, “came out” in an interview with The New York Times on Sunday, February 9th. While other professional athletes have opened up about their sexuality after their careers have ended, Sam will blaze trails by likely being the first openly gay man to ever play in the NFL and he will also be the first to go through the entire drafting process. According to those closest to Sam, the announcement came as no surprise, and it would appear that many in the NFL inner circles and drafting departments had already heard rumors of Sam’s sexuality, which makes his announcement all the more strategic.
Sam is a “Fringe 100” player in the NFL draft, which means that while he is no doubt a very talented athlete and collegiate player, as a draft prospect he leaves some things to be desired. He is undersized for a prototypical NFL defensive end and serious doubts persist about his ability to effectively switch to another position, namely outside linebacker. This leaves Sam with the dreaded “project” title for NFL scouting departments, meaning that the team that drafts him will likely have to invest a lot time and money to allow for Sam to develop over a few years in order to become a contributing member of their team.
This means that other than perhaps his family, Mizzou alumni and the most serious college and NFL fans no one would have cared where Sam ended up. After the announcement Sunday, and just over a week away from the NFL combine, Sam is now a household name and perhaps even more well known than top prospects, far more talented than he. This perfectly timed public announcement is the ultimate win for Sam, his agent and the team that drafts him while showcasing the incredible value of having a public relations strategy. Why you ask?
- Timing. The announcement came at a time when NFL fans and sports writers the nation over were starved for something to talk about. The NFL season had ended and free agency had yet to begin. The combine was weeks away and the only thing left to do was monotonously speculate on off-season moves yet to be made. Enter, Michael Sam.
- Earning Potential. Players drafted in the earlier rounds make more money. Sam is the type of athlete that could fall into the later rounds of the draft, which would mean both he and his agent would make substantially less money and he would be less likely to make the final roster when it is cut to 53 players before the start of the regular season. Following his announcement, the newly-minted media darling of the NFL draft is almost guaranteed to be drafted sooner and to remain on his team’s final roster come September.
- Positive Exposure. There are always scandals in the NFL, but by drafting such a player, a team is guaranteed to increase their positive exposure and public perception. If only there was a team who recently came under fire for its questionable locker room professionalism and suffered immensely from media scrutiny, drafting a player like Sam could instantly add credibility to such an organization (did I hear someone say “Miami Dolphins?”).
- “Character Issues.” NFL scouts have used this blanket to pass on prospects before. The uber-ambiguous term has been applied to players like Manti Teo and Aaron Hernandez and has caused their draft stock to plummet. While the aforementioned players no doubt deserved their criticisms, whispers of Sam’s sexuality meant that more than likely the tag would be placed on him. Sam’s announcement all but eradicated the chance for scouts to use it and ensured that a fair assessment of his athletic abilities be presented to General Managers and Coaches.
- Seats. Anyone who doubts that the LGBT community has immense influence is quite frankly dead wrong. Michael Sam just became the poster-boy for LGBT supporters everywhere. He will be more likely to receive endorsements and become a star with even moderate NFL success. As team owners know better than anyone, star players sell seats, merchandise and have the power to revive a franchise.
Michael Sam did an incredibly brave thing when he came out and owned his sexuality in front of the entire world. He has made his mark in history. And while there will likely be many more openly gay athletes who come into the NFL, there will never be another first. Michael Sam could have made his announcement in so many ways. He could have sent out a tweet or called into a radio station. He could have released a statement to ESPN. He could have waited until after the draft or after his playing career had come to an end. Instead, he enlisted the help of a public relations professional and potentially made himself, his agent and his NFL team a boatload of money, while also changing the world. Well played, Mr. Sam. Well played.