Michael Sam parts ways with Montreal Alouettes, but his stint is a step forward

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Michael Sam parts ways with Montreal Alouettes, but his stint is a step forward
Michael Sam parts ways with Montreal Alouettes, but his stint is a step forward

It might be as simple as this: Michael Sam got his shot with the Montreal Alouettes, and it didn't pan out.

With the Als now now possessing more healthy and reliable options at Sam's position, defensive end, the 25-year-old former NFL draft pick who last week became the first openly gay player to compete in a Canadian Football League game tweeted on Friday that he is leaving the team due to "concern(s) with my mental health." The two angles, Sam's sexual orientation and the effect that trying to be honest about who he is and be accepted as another football player would have on a man's mental health are certainly newsworthy. One would have to presume they are linked.

In all truthiness, given that this was "likely his last shot at professional football," it's probably more likely that Sam was cut by Montreal than it is that he quit. One should posit, for argument's sake, that is neither here nor there, especially if it's for the best move for him as a person to find a comfortable environment.

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The upshot is that this represents one small step forward for inclusiveness in the sports world. An openly gay man played in a pro football game. To those in the stadium on Aug. 7, give or take a sportswriter still using so-last-century terms such as "sexual preference" — who still thinks it is a choice? — it certainly felt no different than any other game in the CFL. That got a point across: every football player, like every person in every walk of life, is fighting a battle you and I have no idea about. Being out should not be a disqualifier. Nor should be having to manage anxiety and/or depression.

It's understandable that pro teams prefer to employ athletes who pose a low risk, but the accepted view when it comes to sexuality should be, as veteran Ottawa Redblacks quarterback Henry Burris put it in a thoughtful response to a leading question, "who knows what people do when they leave the stadium? As long as you come to work and you do your job every day, and you help make this team a better team, that's all we care about."

Of course, sports aren't close to that ideal yet, but at least one can imagine them being closer after Sam's short stint. The fact Sam was news for merely playing in a game on Aug. 7 attests that day is not yet here. The same goes for, as Andrew Bucholtz pointed out after Sam after was scratched from Thursday's Edmonton Eskimos-Als game, Montreal coaches and players venting "anonymous grumbling about Sam" to the media instead of addressing their beefs head-on in the locker room. That is not productive for the now 2-5 team that could be as much as six points out of the last East Division playoff berth by the end of this week's schedule if both Ottawa and Hamilton win their games. One will never know how this might have gone if Sam had been contributing for a 5-2 team, but maybe we will someday.

The Sam experience certainly wasn't perfectly handled by all of the principals. From a pure roster management perspective, the Als having Sam on the 46-man active roster for five weeks before he had played a single down gave established veterans the licence to resent his presence, since almost any other newcomer would have pulling down practice-squad money. It was an especially curious use of salary cap space. Granted, most other CFL rookies might not have the same career fallbacks as Sam, but try telling that to anyone else who had to pay such dues.

Tabling the sexual politics for a moment, one could also make a dollar-store diagnosis that Sam just didn't adjust to being a CFL player. That phenomena often occurs with players who were part of a power-conference program such as the University of Missouri and also were on the bubble in the NFL. His Twitter handle still has NFL in it; his background is still the Tigers' colours. Every spring someone who was a marquee college player comes north and can't adjust to the grind of the CFL, irrespective of whether he has the ability to make the grade. As noted, it could be that simple.

That said, struggling to accept change is a symptom of mental health challenges. Sam rates the chance to work through that privately. 

In the short run, the whole Sam saga might seem mostly sour. That's reinforced by coverage that used phrases such as "admitted he was gay," an artless way of calling Smith an attention-seeking glory hog because he was hopeful he would be accepted.

As far as attention-seeking goes, last Friday after the Als lost 26-23 at Ottawa, Sam quietly fraternized with some Redblacks players and paid no attention to the phalanx of videojournalists that trailed him as he walked toward the tunnel leading to the dressing room. Once the Alouettes opened the dressing room, his answers were short, almost curt.

However, even that relately mild backlash is coming from behind the curve. One can believe Sam's departure happened for purely football reasons, not because he is gay, which is progress in itself. Due to that, one can see that point where a player's sexuality will not matter on the horizon, regardless of how long it takes mainstream men's team sports to get there.  Someone with greater ability, and the requisite support network, will be along at some point. 

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @naitSAYger.

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