BY Art Thiel 02:59PM 02/14/2014

Thiel: Michael Sam puts NFL teams on the spot

Hard to know what’s really in the minds of potential NFL teammates of Michael Sam. But a year ago at the Super Bowl, 49ers CB Chris Culliver made himself clear.

Missourt’s Michael Sam is offering NFL teams a choice, unlike Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey in 1947 when he forced integration on the baseball world with Jackie Robinson.  / Wiki Commons


After the NFL draft in May, every NFL team that did not draft Missouri DE Michael Sam will be asked why. All of them will say more or less the same thing: “We had others rated higher at his position,” “He wasn’t a need for us,” “We were hoping to get him as an undrafted free agent.”

Um, how about the fact that he is gay? “Not a factor.” “We don’t care about that.” “He is? We’ll be darned.”

Or as the crew on “Seinfeld” put it: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Truth is, teams are acutely aware that it may be 2014 in many parts of the country, but there’s still pockets of 1950s in the locker room and many other places. Or has everyone forgotten about 49ers CB Chris Culliver and his remarks before the Super Bowl a year ago?

In a media-day radio interview with comedian Artie Lange, Culliver was asked whether there were gays on the 49ers roster.

“I don’t do the gay guys. I don’t do that,” Culliver said. “We ain’t got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can’t be with that sweet stuff . . . Nah, can’t be . . . in the locker room, man.”

The 49ers quickly issued a statement rejecting Culliver’s remarks, his PR guy apologized for him, and Culliver followed suit with a statement that read in part, “The comments I made yesterday were a reflection of thoughts in my head, but they’re not how I feel.”


I can’t know how representative Culliver’s “thoughts” are with him, let alone among NFL players. Nor can I know how representative were the supportive words Sam’s carefully planned disclosure Sunday, to the New York Times, ESPN and Sports Illustrated, generated within the NFL and across sports and the culture.

That’s because in the constrained, corporate world of the NFL, there is little money in being honest with contrarian views.

Some people may not like Seahawks CB Richard Sherman’s rants against rivals, but that is merely a debate about sportsmanship, not an open condemnation of employability.

Even Mr. Awkward himself, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, recognized the awkwardness of Culliver’s remarks.

“It’s going to impact him going forward,” Harbaugh said during Super Bowl week. “He will learn about himself. I hope and pray it affects him in a positive way going forward.

“That’s not who he is and not what believes in. It took the incident — to hear those words being said, and to see them written on paper — to realize those were hurtful and ugly. I really believe this is something he’ll learn from.”

Whether Culliver, who in 2012 was the Niners’ nickel DB and a valuable special-teams player, learned much is also mostly unknowable, because he abruptly fell off the pop-culture radar in August when he tore his ACL in training camp. He had surgery and was lost to the 49ers for the season.

But the rest of the NFL learned anew something old: If you can’t say something nice . . .

Silence from the uncomfortable doesn’t mean there won’t be apprehension and even resentment. That is virtually inevitable.

But Sam’s decision to come out publicly before his potential selection makes this different from anything previously done by a major pro sports team: Volunteering publicly to break a locker-room taboo.

Many have analogized the situation to the racial integration of Major League Baseball that Jackie Robinson accomplished in 1947. It’s true — up to a point. The difference is that Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey shot first and asked questions later, crushing the barrier after a quiet three-year search for a game-breaking athlete whose skills left no doubt about his worthiness.

The other distinction is that homosexuality is considered a sin by some people of faith. While some will understand there is a difference between acceptance and approval, others may not. For them, it probably matters little that they have been working seamlessly with, for and around gays for years without consequence; the fear comes from the knowing, not the facts.

Despite being the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, Sam enters the draft considered a mid-round draft pick, supposedly a little too small (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) for the D-line job in the NFL. Since Sam is not seen as a game-changer, presumably there are a number of like-skilled players who could do the job as well, without bringing along the cultural microscope. That gives an excuse, times the seven rounds of the draft, for teams who want it to use it.

That brings us to the question of which team will take the chance. Almost immediately, the Seahawks went to the top of the national-media speculative list, in part because of the supportive culture of Camp Carroll met with such resounding success in 2013. The assumption is that if anyone can finesse the issues of media and locker room that presumably come with the drafting of Sam, it is Carroll, the alt-hero.

That is certainly plausible. But the selection has to come within Carroll’s guiding principle: Always compete.

That isn’t just an aspirational slogan: It’s the tool by which players are chosen for the roster. As much as any coach ever has, Carroll mandates that the better player wins the spot based entirely on performance. That means that issues of personality, loyalty, alma mater, publicity or demands of the owner play no factor. Contract size comes into play only as a function of the salary cap, not as an obligation to play a well-paid player.

Ask Matt Flynn, the veteran former Seahawks quarterback beaten out in 2012 by rookie Russell Wilson, about that.

“No politics,” said Seahawks TE Zach Miller when I asked him about it during Super Bowl week. “No politics at all. That’s why players like it.”

It can be a difficult but liberating methodology. If the Seahawks draft Sam, they will believe he has the capacity to make the 53-man roster. But he will be obliged to prove it in preseason, and will be retained or released exclusively because of it.

As for those players who will be uncomfortable, Carroll can simply say that Sam will make the Seahawks better. He and John Schneider each will have Super Bowl rings to prove they know a little something about talent evaluation, particularly with all the low-rounders or no-rounders who came to glory in Seattle.

Those players who don’t approve of Sam can choose: Accept, or move along. If they stay, they might learn something. Unlike Culliver, it will be the easy way.


  • jafabian

    I believe Sam will be available when the Hawks pick in the first round comes up. If he’s there at the end of the second either he had a bad showing at the combine, he’s hurt or there’s something rotten in the state of NFL. If the Hawks bring back everyone from the D-line though then they really don’t need him. Plus they have three more on the practice squad. IMO they need O-line help more as well as a tall WR, unless they bring Rice back.

    • art thiel

      We can’t know today what the Seahawks will look like in May, after the free-agent period is done. It’s clear they have O-line needs, but that could be fixed — or made worse — in free agency.

  • Bayview Herb

    As an old guy, 75 years old, I grew up firts not realizing that Gay didn’t mean happy. After about three generations I have come to a conclusion. While I hate the physical abominations that I would just not want to imagine, I have in fact made friends with two or three. My conclusion is notwithstanding my generational position/prejudice, getting to know one makes a huge difference. When we, the oldsters die off, a new standard will be born. I just hope that with gay,lesbians reaching for respect, they don’t create a new privileged class, like the NAACP is for African-Americans.

    • oldfan

      I’m afraid it’s already too late. Gays have almost reached that “privileged class” of African Americans. Already they can be denied jobs or fired for being themselves. They can be attacked, beaten, and even killed for walking the streets of cities around the world. They can be denied the basic human rights that others receive. They can be shunned by family and community for existing.
      Maybe soon they’ll gain that lofty status that blacks and hispanics in America have enjoyed for so long of being imprisoned for the same crimes that whites are given probation; getting accused of theft, jailed, and strip-searched for entering a high-priced store; or being gunned down for walking the suburbs in Florida,
      The only abomination I see is that some human beings are so willing to turn a blind eye to the suffering and persecution of anyone they perceive as different from themselves.

      • art thiel

        Point taken, old fan. I don’t yet see privileges accorded to minorities. They are largely out of power, and discrimination of any kind always comes down to power.

        • raymondd

          Satire, Art

    • art thiel

      I appreciate your willingness to acknowledge your bias. The logic of social change always lags behind the emotional attachment to our fears.

  • Bayview Herb

    One of my thoughts is that in a heterosexual locker room, a parallel to a gay in an all male locker room, showering together could be as awkward as a man entering a female locker room, disrobing and showering with the girls. This isn’t just a sexual preference issue, there are practical effects. What next? coeducational shower rooms?

    • oldfan

      There have been homosexuals in NFL locker rooms for decades, and often it’s not secret from their teammates. The Redskins of the 70s, the Oilers of the 90s, are examples that we already know about. Given that gays make up approximately one in 10 people, there have likely been (and are) many more. It’s never been an issue, any more than religious, racial, or political differences. The only difference here is it’s known by the public and, particularly, the press who are making a big deal out of it.
      Despite the stereotype and disinformation, homosexuals are not recruiting and not interested in changing anyone natural inclinations.
      I’ve known dozens of gay men and none of them were any more interested in straight men than you are.

      • art thiel

        The fact that gays have been on teams for years doesn’t change the symbolism of Sam’s openness. That’s why it’s newsworthy. Sam is the first to not hide his sexual orientation, which is a big breakthrough for young men who have felt fearful/ashamed.

        Just because you’re cool with gay men doesn’t mean than a 17-year-old thinks he can afford to out himself. Someone needed to go first. I hope you and others see the difference.

        • oldfan

          I seem to have not come across the way I intended. My point was meant to be that a gay man in the locker room is not the insurmountable huddle that many have portrayed it to be.
          Certainly Sam’s coming is a big deal for him, people like him, and the sports world in general. But I look forward to the day it is not.

          • art thiel

            The first breakthrough in any culture shift is always a big deal. You have already moved on, and wish others would catch up. I get it.

    • art thiel

      The communal shower is where sports separates from nearly all other job analogies. But I doubt seriously whether a gay guy among heteros is a threat to anyone. Not likely the case with a man among women.

  • Bayview Herb

    I don’t think the Seahawks will pick anyone from the first round. They have salary cap issues that while are somewhat predictable, will result in trading the top pick for multiple lower pick that will fit under the salary cap. I see Browner, Tate and perhaps one or two others that don’t fit. The other guy that just returned from a suspension ( my mind is deficiant ) will go as well.

    • RadioGuy

      You mean Walter Thurmond? He say stay because he’s only been popped for drugs once. I think Browner (a “multiple offender”) is toast and were it not for all that guaranteed money, Harvin should be getting nervous, too…great Super Bowl TD run, but precious little return overall on the investment thus far, unless it’s worth millions to have a guy camped on the PUP or DL all season.

      As for Sam, we’ll have to wait and see. It took courage to say what he said before the draft, but (as Art’s headline implies) it also puts NFL teams on the spot. Whoever drafts him has to know their training camp will be a total media circus similar to Super Bowl Week, in which “reporters” who know nothing about football are going to show up and turn what should be dozens of guys battling for 45 roster spots into a sociological petri dish. Can’t think of too many teams who desire that kind of environment OR the firestorm to follow if they decide Sam isn’t what they need because they won’t be allowed the luxury of simply saying it was a football decision (even if it is). What middle rounder is worth all that?

      • oldfan

        Michael Sam did the only open and honest thing he could, if he wants to play football and doesn’t want to hide who he is. He’s not asking for anything but equal treatment. If it forces NFL teams and their management to show their level of strength and courage, or lack there of, that’s their problem.

        Sam has already said he’ll answer questions about his situation until he’s drafted, after that only football questions ’til after the season. Teams can, and do, control how much access the media has to rookies, and the rest of the team, during the season. Funny that the NFL doesn’t see any great distraction issues with a reality show being filmed in the midst of a team’s training camp.

        NFL teams have had no problems with signing players with a history of alcohol and drug problems, sexual misconduct, women beaters, ex-cons, and dog killers. No insurmountable problems dealing with the media in those situations. But a gay player is too much?

        Teams survived the media firestorm of having the first black quarterback and the first black coach (or even further back, the first Italian coach). They also survived the benching, cutting, and firing of those as well. Why is this so much different?

        The fact is that any move an NFL coach and GM makes is subject to public and media scrutiny (such as starting a too-short 3rd round pick over a high-priced veteran free agent, or… ask Rex Ryan about starting Mark Sanchez any time in the past two years). If they can’t deal with having their decisions questioned they are in the wrong profession.

        Progress has to start somewhere. You can go down in history as Branch Rickey, or you can go down as Adolph Rupp.

        • Jamo57

          I see a certain pragmatism to Sam’s announcement that in the end works for all parties involved. That being his putting it out there will result in his ultimately landing in a situation that will be best able to handle it, both from a community and team standpoint. That is why the Hawks are seen as being at the top of the list. I remember the Culliver quote and thinking how ironic it was and how tone deaf he seemed to the community and fan base he was playing in front of.

          And to the Jackie Robinson analogy, one difference is Sam is able to operate somewhat on his own terms. Jackie and the other Negro League ballplayers had to wait for an advocate to help run interference for them and create the opportunity. Sam doesn’t have to wait for or need a Branch Rickey.

          This is not said to minimize the challenges that still await. It’s just to say that Sam has some autonomy here and in many respects his coming out before the combine and draft process provides him perhaps better odds at getting into a situation where he can succeed. It will be interesting to watch and I hope he does.

          • oldfan

            I’ll admit to a bit of hyperbole with the Branch Rickey comparison, but some management person will have to step up and take the heat for Sam to get his chance. 50 years from now that person will likely be best remembered for it, just as Rickey is remembered for Jackie Robinson.
            Likewise I chose Rupp because great a coach as he was, in sports history he’s most often remembered (outside the state of Kentucky) for his vocal opposition to playing against an all black team.

          • art thiel

            Each team will consider the Sam risk, and someone in management, probably the coach, will defend it. Not sure its Rickey-esque, but only time will tell.

          • art thiel

            Remember that the draft forces players to markets randomly. It’s a myth that the Seahawks’ 53 players somehow are representative of anything that’s part of the culture here, Jermaine Kearse being the lone coincidental exception.

            Culliver likely understood little but stereotypes about SF’s gay culture.

            And you’re right that Rickey and the Dodgers took a big share of the risk along with Robinson. Sam’s taking all the risk now, and he may not get drafted.

          • Jamo57

            He may not get drafted but I see his announcement as an attempt to remove some of the randomness that you rightfully point out is characteristic of the draft. Of course the randomness of a locker room culture still remains, but allowing a team to know all his characteristics appears calculated at putting him in the best spot.

        • art thiel

          Well said, oldfan.

          Sam’s disclosure had to happen somewhere, sometime. Controversies come and go. Some people will never forgive Ray Lewis or Michael Vick, and those people are entitled to their feelings. Most fans put their consciences second when it comes to hero worship.

          Not saying either is right or wrong. It’s a big world, and imperfect.

      • art thiel

        Harvin is no threat to be gone. They love what he brings. Don’t forget he rushed on two fly sweeps for 45 yards. The Broncos were scared spitless of him.

        I think several clubs, New England and Seattle come to mind, have a strong enough culture and secure enough coaches to spend a lower pick on Sam f they like his value. It will be a big deal for awhile, then it will be secondary.

    • art thiel

      Possible to trade out, but if a guy they like falls to them, the cap will make no difference. They’ll manipulate the salaries for a guy they like.

  • notaboomer

    hard to believe that this piece has no mention of fact that gay 7 foot 32 year old proven center jason collins has gone unsigned by nba teams to the all-star break. also strange that there’s no reference to the homophobic and racist environment of the miami dolphins published in the weiss report about the incognito/martin incident investigated by the nfl. context yo!

    • art thiel

      You left out several other examples, too.

      As far as Collins, he’s 35 and played a total of 38 games for two teams last year. His career can be reasonably seen to be over.

      The slurs in the Wells report do underscore part of the locker room culture, but the Dolphins episode is a subject all its own. Stay tuned.