February 18, 2014

Identity politics and sport

Or, “Draft a potential bust or risk the wrath of a sanctimonious, superficial, 2-minute Bob Costas diatribe.” Jim Geraghty explains, using the case of Michael Sam, an openly gay defensive lineman / rush linebacker who is eligible for this year’s NFL Draft:

Those of us who are sports fans are going to have a fascinating couple weeks ahead, as the national political and cultural media insists upon interpreting the events of the National Football League draft through the lens of identity politics. They will attempt to shoehorn events into a made-for-TV movie storyline about Michael Sam, defensive end for the University of Missouri, and aspiring NFL player.

Our media is used to writing one kind of identity-politics story: a person comes out of the closet and becomes the first openly-gay person to achieve a particular goal, gets saluted for bravery, is elevated to hero status, and then spends the next few years going to black-tie awards dinners and being the subject of overwrought documentaries.


You may recall Jason Collins was invited to the State of the Union, and you may recall references to “NBA star Jason Collins.” The term “journeyman” is more accurate, as he played for six teams, four since 2009. His career averages are 3.6 points per game, 3.8 rebounds per game, .9 assists per game, .5 steals per game. Undoubtedly, you have to have talent to play 12 seasons in the NBA and play 713 games in those seasons, starting about two-thirds of them. He averaged 20 minutes per game (an NBA game is 48 minutes). He’s good, but not a star. Collins was a free agent when he came out of the closet, and no team has signed him since. Some will insist that reflects league-wide homophobia, but that interpretation neglects the fact that age 35 is the end of the shelf life of an NBA center. But “journeyman NBA player discloses his sexual orientation at end of his career” is a less dramatic story, and so most of the media deemphasized those aspects of the story.

The NFL Draft comes with its own movie-ready drama. Unlike the Super Bowl or any other sports championship, the draft is a major annual event that involves every team, as every almost every team has a first-round draft choice. (Sorry, Washington Redskins fans.) There’s a near-complete reversal of fortune, as the league’s worst team has the first and most consequential choice, making a selection that could ignite a quick turnaround back to respectability or be remembered as one of the all-time flops. Every fan of every team has a reason to tune in, to see who their team picks, hoping to have gotten a future star. The NFL draft is one of those rare high-drama sporting events with no real losers.

But there are indeed big winners. For the players, draft day is their real graduation day, where they stop practicing their craft to ensure the prosperity of a university and finally cash in on their years of effort with, in most circumstances, a multi-million dollar, multi-year contract. Guys who grew up with next to nothing bring their mothers and their whole families to New York City, where they learn where they’ll be living for the next few years, pursuing their dream of stardom. Genuine tears of joy flow. At age 20 or 21 or so, these young men have achieved their childhood dreams.

I suspect most fans’ biggest question about Michael Sam is, ‘if my team drafts him, how much better will our pass rush get?’ NFL fans care about the off-the-field behavior of their favorite team’s players to a certain degree; nobody likes rooting for a thug and a player prone to off-the-field trouble represents a higher risk of getting himself suspended or in legal trouble someday. But it’s hard to believe that NFL fans who can come to terms with a one-man population explosion at cornerback or shrug off drug busts, assault charges, DWIs, public intoxication, and all kinds of other misbehavior will stop rooting for a team with a gay defensive end.

A large chunk of the media will insist upon interpreting every triumph and setback for Michael Sam through the lens of his homosexuality and their belief that he’s a flashpoint in a battle between “tolerance” and “intolerance.” But the career of an NFL player can rise or fall on a thousand different factors and twists of fate. Do the coaches use him correctly? How complicated is the defensive system, and how quickly can he pick up the signals, terminology, and strategy? Is he in a system designed to showcase his natural skills, or are the coaches trying to use him in a new or different role that takes time to learn? How good are the other players on the team at his position? Does he twist an ankle or tear an ACL? Sam seems to have a good head on his shoulders, but how does he handle the pressures of being a professional athlete?

Nobody really knows the answers to any of these questions until the players put on uniforms and start playing. In 1998, coaches and scouts deemed two quarterbacks to be potential superstars. Peyton Manning lived up to all the hype and more; Ryan Leaf is remembered as one of the all-time flops. Fourteen of 20 general managers rated Leaf the more promising prospect.

Greg Bedard of Sports Illustrated watched game tapes of Sam and saw a player with definite potential for the NFL, but by no means a sure thing:

There’s no question that Sam had major production this season, as he led the SEC in sacks and tackles for a loss (which includes sacks). This is probably why he was named SEC defensive player of the year by the media, and co-DPOY (with Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley) by the coaches. However, you have to look at the circumstances of his production. Namely, most of it came in three games of a four-game stretch against inferior competition: Arkansas State (three sacks), Vanderbilt (three sacks) and Florida (three sacks). Sam had a total of a half-sack in his final six games, until he made a huge play on basically the final play of the Cotton Bowl…

So basically in his final five games plus 40 snaps against Oklahoma State—the best competition Sam faced all season—he had no splash plays. The right tackles he faced (as a left end he didn’t go against Texas A&M left tackle Jake Matthews, a projected top-10 pick) in that stretch were more of what he will see in the pros. The right tackles he beat up to gain his production likely wouldn’t be on NFL training-camp rosters. Four of his sacks came with lesser opponents desperate and behind by large margins in the fourth quarter, in obvious passing situations. In addition, Florida’s offensive line was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. Lastly: Sam’s sack against South Carolina in overtime was on an unblocked stunt…

To me, Sam looked below average against the run. He can’t get off blocks when engaged, and I saw him get cut several times by offensive linemen. For that reason it’s tough to see him as a 4-3 end. Against Auburn, a premier team, Sam was often blocked, and effectively, by a fullback. That’s a bad sign if Sam is going to have to convert to standup linebacker in the NFL. Plus, rookies in the NFL most often have to be special-team stalwarts, and those are most often very good athletes. The marginal athleticism that I saw will be a problem in Sam’s fight to earn a roster spot.

Bedard concludes that while it’s possible some team sees more potential in Sam than he does, he thinks Sam grades out to a mid- to late-round pick, or he could go undrafted. (There are seven rounds of the NFL draft, and players who aren’t drafted are free to sign with any team that offers them a contract.)

If that scenario occurs, we’ll hear a lot about the rampant homophobia and culture of hate within the NFL — regardless of whether or not it reflects the facts of what actually happens.

Well, sure. In fact, it’s clear already that Bedard’s entire “analysis” is based on his hatred of the buggerers. Because if you’re gay and play sports, you’re magical and — like any Rousseauvian noble savage — are by the very nature of your Otherness better than those who fall within some boring mainstream or other. Which to my mind means we should celebrate more female tennis stars who aren’t lesbians, but then, that’s just my silly little nod to equanimity, which is a false paradigm encouraged by the hoary morality of the Enlightenment.

The bottom line is, there will be those who don’t like the idea of an openly gay player, those who like the idea, and many many many more who don’t much care. But because we’re to be accosted routinely by the left’s morality plays — which are nothing more than secularist screeds aimed at demanding the overt support of their orthodoxies — we will in fact have to endure the sight of ESPN reporters tracking down Tim Tebow to ask his views on homosexuality (while leaving be all the overtly religious black athletes who, proportionally, seem to have a much more “intolerant” view of homosexuality than most other demographics).

A bit of a warning, therefore: don’t mess with Tim Tebow.

The Broncos did. And you saw what happened in the Superbowl, no?

Posted by Jeff G. @ 1:53pm

Comments (22)

  1. the NFL is illiterate and thuggy and tax exempt

    a good start would be to force them to pick two of these

    plus also they should be nice to Mr. Sam

  2. “Mr. Sam, how very nice to meet you. Thank you for playing, here are some nice parting gifts.”

  3. Yo! BIG GAY SAM!!! Welcome to the team we’re gonna have a great year! Would you like some fritos?

  4. I sorta of wonder if this guy made a strategic move thinking no one wants to be called a homophobe, therefore they have to keep him. I do not know if that is a point the author is trying to make.

  5. How can the Redskins not draft him to get the progressive punishment parade off their back for a while?

  6. Fritos are racist.

  7. I don’t think the author is trying to make that point, but it’s a good point nonetheless. I’d like to give the kid the benefit of the doubt – meaning, he didn’t openly declare his orientation before the draft in order to compensate for what might very well be mediocre talent. Sam’s intent aside, his orientation will used as an excuse for any legitimate criticism leveled at him based on his football skills – the experience of the current president’s critics is instructive.

  8. bgbear, Maybe. He was projected 5th or 6th round pick anyways.

  9. What’s his motivation in inviting all of us into his world?

  10. here are the vocal stylings of my favorite big gay sam, which are wholly unrelated to the football playings of my second favorite big gay sam

  11. Dan Snyder should make him a Redskin. That would be hilarious.

  12. What’s his motivation in inviting all of us into his world?

    It’s apparently been an open secret and he just wanted to get it out there to avoid endless speculation. Jeffy on Beck’s show almost outed him on air some time ago. His son played with him. No, not like that. Football. Get yer minds out of the gutter.

  13. I’m with Pablo. He was getting ahead of the whole thing to avoid it being a circus.

    Now, of course, it’s just a different kind of circus.

  14. Whatever his motivation, he has damaged any chance of being fairly evaluated – if that matters to him at all.

  15. This whole thing is a fairly huge yawner for me.

    Sam MIGHT be the second best defensive end in the SEC. Maybe. I think Clowney still is the better clutch-play guy. But he was injured most of the season, so Sam’s numbers look stellar in comparison.

    Last year, a healthy Clowney reeled off 13 sacks (to Sam’s 11.5 this year) and 23.5 tackles for a loss (to Sam’s 19 this year).

  16. Thanks Pablo.

    I think a Redskins pick is a great idea.

  17. Greetings:

    For a while now, actually since President Obama decided to address the problem of “infantry inequality”, I’ve been hoping that he would get in touch with his inner Rosa Parks and help liberate female sportspersonesses from the back of the professional and collegiate sports buses.

    I mean, just think of it why are women, by the simple fact of their mostly natural gender forced into the WNBA when they play almost the same game as the NBA. If only President Obama, himself a basketball player of some note, would executively order the NBA to close down the abomination that WNBA is a for evermore allow women to try out for the new, better, faster multi-gendered NBA. One big plantation for all is the new American way to my mind.

    And then, our President could get his legal pen and legal phone out and spread the word that he has found that Title IX (God, I do miss those Roman numbers, especially “D”) to be the unconstitutional monstrosity that it has been for way too long. The only way the future sportspersonesses of America will be able to reach their full potential is to dive headfirst into uni-gender sports.

    I mean, just think about the savings. And the all and everyone communal showers.

  18. >help liberate female sportspersonesses from the back of the professional and collegiate sports buses. <

    yea i worry about the "disparate impact" too for the wymans

  19. “defensive end”


  20. Please not the Redskins…I do not wish to sit in my living room, drinking while watching him desperately try to get into someone else’s backfield.
    That being said our Jerry Smith (RIP) did pretty well for us from 65-77 and that tight end wasnt exactly kept in the closet.

  21. We shall have the ongoing merry old Gay NFL Player media circus, no matter what is Michael Sam’s outcome. This will always be about the “First Gay NFL Player, for Ever and Ever and Ever!”

    With Sam, the story will re-emerge at various points on the 2014 NFL calendar. At the Combine, he’ll be as big of a deal as Te’o was a year ago. Next, the media will pay more attention to Missouri’s Pro Day than it would if Justin Bieber were showing up to kick extra points. (Or perhaps to carefully dribble a basketball between his legs, drive to the hoop against defensive efforts that would embarrass even the Washington Generals, and glare as menacingly as a misguided man-boy ever can.) Next comes the draft, and as Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post recently observed on Twitter, the ratings for Day Three will set new records if Sam isn’t taken by the time round three ends on Friday night, May 9.

    After Sam is drafted, the media will seek a reaction from every player and coach on that team. Some may offer controversial views anonymously, which definitely will spark more attention and controversy and, ultimately, media coverage.

    Then, Sam will show up for offseason workouts. Then training camp. Then the preseason. Eventually, the question will become whether he makes a 53-man roster. (And if he’s cut, the big top will be back in town all over again.)

    And on and on..it is to retch.

    Who will take SamIAmGay? A team that needs the attention. The Redskins, because irony. The 49ers, because, well, San Francisco; location, location, location. More likely a mediocre team like the Cardinals or the Titans, or any other forever caught in the NFL’s forced socialism (8-8 thanks for playing), for the added name recognition.

    Don’t expect a ‘winning’ team to take him. The Broncos, Lions, Patriots, all the usual chart toppers, know better than to throw a divisive fister element into their locker rooms.

  22. Dave J, that assumes you’d be seeing him on the field. That seems unlikely to happen with any frequency.