“Do you think with you coming out it affected your ability to play?” he was asked.
“I was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year last year,” Sam replied. “So I don’t think it had to do with talent.”
Excuse us, Michael. We know enough about sports to know that being a college star is no guarantee of going pro. The world is filled with young athletes who thrived in high school or college ranks but were just not quite good enough to make it to the next level.
On the other hand, we’d be foolish to dismiss the idea that discrimination played no role in his at least temporary demise. Outright discrimination aside, the pressure of the added scrutiny he faced as a historic first could not have been easy for him or for those around him.
After we posted the story, Queerty readers were quick to take issue with the idea that discrimination led to his football demise.
“Mr. Sam is right,” commenter BJ McFrisky wrote, “it’s not about his talent, it’s about his lack thereof.”
“The two teams that gave him a chance seem to have had legitimate reasons to cut him,” commenter mjwatts added. “I don’t think they should’ve been forced to keep him or anything.”
“I feel like he tried to make [his sexuality] a ‘thing’ instead of remaining humble that he was drafted,” Derec Flowers on Facebook opined. “He definitely had the talent though. But he seemed like he was playing for the wrong reasons.”
So what the hell happened? Is he just another athlete not quite good enough to play in the NFL, or was he brought down by something larger than himself?
Let’s take a look back at Michael Sam’s rise and fall since he first came out in February:
Under the guidance of publicist Howard Bragman, the 24-year-old Sam, then a defensive lineman from Missouri Tigers, made headlines when he came out in interviews with both the New York Times and ESPN.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” he told reporters. “I just want to own my truth.”
The NFL was quick to issue a response: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
And just like that, a star was born.
Sam wasted no time merchandising. One month after coming out, he launched an online store selling official rainbow colored “Stand With Sam” merchandise, including t-shirts and buttons ranging from $21.99 to $100.
Sam was listed as #9 on OUT magazine’s Power 50 list, alongside folks like Rachel Maddow, Andy Cohen, Ellen Degeneres, and Anderson Cooper. Meanwhile, six NFL teams expressed interest in possibly drafting him.
May was a big month for Sam.
First, he was picked up by the St. Louis Rams, making him the first openly gay athlete to be drafted by a professional sports team. ESPN was there to film Sam as he got the news. The network broadcast him kissing his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, which, naturally, led to a media shit storm, during which homophobe Amy Kushnir became a household name for a hot minute.
Around that same time, Sam inked his first endorsement deal with Visa. He also appeared on Good Morning America, where he said he considered himself “a beacon for other athletes who may be gay.” And later that month, Oprah announced plans for a “multi-part documentary series” about him to be produced by OWN.
This was another big month for Sam.
After it was reported that he was getting along with his new teammates swimmingly (“They respect me as a human being and as a football player,” he told the press), on June 12, Sam signed a four-year, $2.65 million contract with the Rams.
“Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis,” he tweeted after inking the deal. “I’m using every once of this to achieve greatness!!”
That same month, he was also named “Top Gay Icon” by the dating app Jack’d.
Adoring boyfriend by his side, Sam once again made headlines, this time for his moving speech while accepting the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.
“To anyone out there, especially young people feeling like they don’t fit in and will never be accepted,” he said, “know this: great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself.”
By the end of the month, however, rumors that Sam wasn’t performing well during practice began to surface. It was reported that he was “not quick, fast, or agile enough” and that his celebrity was becoming too much of a “distraction.”
ESPN, the same network that broadcast him getting the news that he had been drafted to play for the St. Louis Rams, ran a story about Sam’s showering habits.
Josina Anderson reported that Sam often waited to shower alone after practice. Being the curious young journalist that she is, Anderson investigated the issue further. She asked others why they thought Sam didn’t like showering with his teammates. She found there could be “a million different reasons,” including that maybe he was off “riding his bike.”
Two weeks later, Sam was cut by the Rams. Some suggested he was dropped from the team because he was gay, but coach Jeff Fisher emphasized that “It was a football decision and it was no different than any other decision that we make.”
48 hours after being let go from the Rams, Sam was scooped up by the Dallas Cowboys for its practice squad, which is sort of a minor league for football players.
“I’m just looking forward to being a Cowboy,” Sam told the Daily Mail. “My focus is on making the team.”
Rumors swirled that the NFL begged the Cowboys to sign Sam but Jerry Jones, the team’s owner, denied the claim, telling a local Dallas radio station, “We were not [contacted].”
Days later, it was reported that Sam was impressing his new team with his “quickness.”
Seven weeks later, the Cowboys waived Sam.
“I want to thank the Jones family and the entire Cowboys organization for this opportunity, as well as my friends, family, teammates and fans for their support. While this is disappointing, I will take the lessons I learned here in Dallas and continue to fight for an opportunity to prove that I can play every Sunday,” Sam tweeted following his release.
Despite being cut from two teams, GQ magazine named Sam “Game Changer of the Year.” During his interview with the publication, he expressed misgivings over his decision to come out in such a public way back in February.
“If I had it my way, I never would have done it the way I did,” Sam said in a subtle jab at Bragman. “[I] never would have told it the way I did.”
When asked to elaborate, Sam explained: “I would have done the same thing I did at Mizzou, which was to tell my team and my coaches and leave it at that. But the recruiters knew, and reporters knew, and they talked to each other and it got out. If I didn’t have the year I did, nobody would have cared. But I have no regrets. Some people can argue that I had the potential to go higher in the draft. But I think everything happens for a reason.”
Sam echoed the sentiment expressed in his GQ interview when he suggested that he was dropped from the NFL for being gay.
Shortly after the story broke, he took to Twitter to clarify his statements: “Despite what headlines you may read, I’ve never said and have never believed that I am being kept out of the league. I know I have talent to play in the NFL and I look forward to getting an opportunity once again to prove that I can help a team win.”
It remains to be seen what’s next for Michael Sam. Will he prove his worth in the NFL? Or will he simply go down in the books as just another guy who didn’t make the team?