Why NFL teams should want to draft Michael Sam

OPINION - We like to think of sports as the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, your race, nationality or what you believe; on the field/court/ice, everyone is the same, on a team, striving for the greater good...

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We like to think of sports as the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, your race, nationality or what you believe; on the field/court/ice, everyone is the same, on a team, striving for the greater good.

That idea sounds great in theory. It’s a wonderful message to tell our kids. But how real is it?

We first found out in 1947. Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He faced criticism, racism, abuse and routine disrespect. He also changed the way we viewed baseball and American sports.

On Sunday, Michael Sam made the monumental announcement that he is gay. For the first time, a male football player who has yet to begin his professional career will be openly gay.

Sam had a decorated collegiate career. Last year he was the SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year, leading Missouri to the SEC Championship game. He’s projected as an NFL mid-round pick, who could go as high as the third round.

Those projections were before he was openly gay. While most of the reception post-announcement has been positive, some have said Sam will be a “distraction.” Jonathan Vilma – who is widely viewed as a respected voice in the NFL – expressed concerns over sharing a shower with an openly gay player.

Everyone is talking about why teams might not draft Sam. There’s nothing worse to NFL coaches than distractions; fears of increased media attention, insensitive factions of the locker room, and ignorant fans may be enough to scare some teams away.

What everyone is failing to discuss though, is why teams should draft Sam. There are plenty of reasons why adding a gay player could be a good thing.

The most obvious is the kid can probably play. There are concerns he is undersized, but to be a dominant defensive player in the SEC – where the majority of NFL players are coming from now – has to mean something. When you consider that an NFL GM only has to use a mid-round pick on him (and potentially lower if this announcement really does affect his draft stock), it certainly seems worthwhile to give him a look.

Potential backlash from his new teammates and other NFL players is a legitimate concern. But his Missouri teammates knew he was gay back in August and the story never leaked. They rallied around him. Their team had a hugely successful season. Clearly, his teammates liked and revered him enough to keep his sexual preference what it should be: a nonissue. If 18-to-22-year-old kids can do that, adults in 2014 should also seemingly be able to do the same.

There will be increased attention. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Supporters of the gay community will immediately gravitate to Sam and the team that drafts him. The first openly gay football player will garner sponsorship looks and opportunities for the entire organization.

From a PR perspective, an open-minded, forward-thinking organization makes for plenty of positive press. After the Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin fiasco, the Miami Dolphins could probably use some good headlines right about now. What better way to show that the bullying controversy doesn’t define their team or locker room than by being the first team to have a gay player on the roster?  Or what about the San Francisco 49ers, playing in a town with a large gay community, adding one of college football’s best defenders to already one of the best defenses in the NFL? What if Sam’s rookie season was spent playing on special teams under Minnesota Vikings assistant coach Mike Priefer, who was accused of being homophobic?

Lastly, and potentially most importantly, is the making-history factor. When the Dodgers signed Robinson, they knew the risks. They also knew that if Robinson could succeed, it would change both baseball and their franchise.

They gambled and were right. Robinson is an American hero, and Branch Rickey and the Dodgers are forever in baseball lore as proprietors of change. Now the Dodgers are one of the most storied teams ever. They will always have lifelong black fans, as well as one of the highest brand values in sports.

The Dodgers changed history by signing Robinson. An NFL team has an opportunity to do the same by drafting Sam.

We like to think sports have the power to bring all different types of people together. Come April, let’s see which NFL team proves it.

Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace.