American sports took an important step yesterday when Missouri defensive end and 2014 draft prospect Michael Sam announced that he is gay. To date, no openly gay athletes have played in one of the major four sports, and the only active American athlete to try -- Jason Collins of the NBA -- hasn't sniffed a contract since his announcement. Michael Sam represents what no one expected: a young, unestablished player with his entire career ahead of him coming out as gay.
The decision comes with tremendous risk for Sam. Immediately following the announcement, all manner of NFL scouts and personnel men went on record -- anonymously of course -- stating that Sam's decision would garner additional scrutiny and attention that could turn some teams away.
While the idea that a league which employs spousal abusers, DUI offenders, and alleged rapists would bristle at the inclusion of an openly gay player seems ludicrous, those making personnel decisions do not come from the younger generation of which Sam is a member.
For many in team management, the idea of breaking down a social barrier represents too much risk in destroying team unity or bringing unwanted media attention to the team. This is despite the outpouring of support for Sam from current and recent players, not to mention the fact that his most recent team finished fifth in the final 2013 BCS polls after Sam came out to his teammates before the season. While not everyone in a locker room will welcome Sam with open arms, it does appear from the widespread reaction around the league that enough NFL players are ready to accept openly gay athletes that it shouldn't worry NFL execs.
Yet somehow, there are teams will downgrade Sam for his orientation or remove him from their draft boards altogether. The fear of creating distraction, however unsubstantiated, will drive many out of the market for Sam's services. In order for Sam to be successful, it's imperative that he land on a team with strong organizational structure, a veteran coaching staff, and a culture of tolerance.
The Green Bay Packers are such an organization.
Packers general manager Ted Thompson has spent the last nine years building one of the league's most steady and well-run organizations in the NFL. His coaching staff is led by the even-keeled Mike McCarthy and a cavalcade of assistants of similar disposition save for a rare few exceptions. The roster is composed of "Packer people," players deemed to have strong moral character that toe the company line. Even those that don't fit the profile such as Jermichael Finley are tame by NFL standards.
The culture in Green Bay's locker room is one of support. Team leaders like Aaron Rodgers rallied around Johnny Jolly, a player with a troubled past, and helped turn his life around. If the Green Bay locker room can insulate and support Jolly, it undoubtedly can back an upstanding young man like Sam. McCarthy stated as much on Monday afternoon, when asked about Sam: "Any player who can come here, be a good teammate, follow the rules of our program, which is one, be respectful and produce on the football field, we have room for that guy."
But having the right organizational structure is only part of the equation. The team that drafts lands on must also fit his unique set of skills.
As an undersized defensive end (6-2, 260), Sam would be only a situational pass rusher if he remained in a 4-3 scheme. With his size and athleticism, Sam projects better as a 3-4 outside linebacker. As has been well documented, the Packers are in need of such a linebacker to run across from All-Pro Clay Matthews. While the early returns haven't been promising for Nick Perry, their last defensive end to linebacker project, Sam wouldn't require nearly the same level of investment as most expect him to go between the third and fifth round. With the Packers projected to receive at least one extra selection in that range from the compensatory draft pick system, the risk associated with another DE-to-OLB conversion is greatly minimized.
Of course, Sam and the Packers would bear witness to the inevitable backlash from those outside the organization trying to stem the tide of history. Such is the unavoidable reality when society is presented with change.
However, given the team's ability to protect and rally around Sam while utilizing him at his ideal defensive position, there isn't a team better suited to take on this courageous young man and all that comes with him.
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