The CFL saw history made Friday with the news that defensive end Michael Sam had signed with the Montreal Alouettes. Sam is an incredibly talented player who's been considering the CFL for a while, and he should help boost Montreal's pass rush, but he's also a trailblazer; he's the first openly gay player to sign in the CFL. While the league has done a lot to promote the idea of welcoming players regardless of their sexual orientation, from an official partnership with You Can Play to various teams and players participating in anti-homophobia events, this is where the rubber will meet the road.
If everything goes well and Sam becomes a CFL star, that not only could provide him with a pathway back to the NFL (his deal is for one year with an option; it's not clear if that's a team or player option), it might pave the way for other openly gay players in Canadian football. However, this may not all be smooth sailing. We've seen some Twitter backlash against Sam before from particular CFL players (who were fined and/or exiled from the league as a result) while he was in the NFL. Will the Alouettes and the CFL be able to get players to accept him now that he's north of the border?
The CFL's responsibility for living up to its past comments about not discriminating against players based on orientation starts at the top, and that's why it's positive to see that new commissioner Jeffrey Orridge has already weighed in with a statement strongly supporting Sam. Former commissioner Mark Cohon was highly involved in the league's pro-tolerance efforts, and it's good to see that Orridge (who, by the way, is the CFL's first black commissioner and cited the league's historical meritocracy as a reason he loved it growing up) is following in that vein. Here's what he said:
Congratulations to the Montreal Alouettes on the signing of Michael Sam. Our players come to us from different places, different walks of life and ultimately they take different paths to get to our fields. Today is another indication of how open and progressive the CFL is - consistent with our rich and storied history of great football tradition. Welcome to Montreal, Michael!".
Montreal general manager Jim Popp was also highly supportive of Sam in his comments:
“With the signing of Michael Sam, we have become a better organization today,” said Alouettes’ general manager, Jim Popp. “Not only have we added an outstanding football player, we have added even a better person that brings dignity, character, and heart to our team.”
Where this will get challenging is if we see negative comments from players. While there are many CFL players who have been firmly in favour of supporting gay players, there are undoubtably some out there who are upset Sam's now in their league. For example, Maurice Price and Bryant Turner, two of the players previously fined for Twitter comments about Sam, are still in the CFL with Ottawa and Winnipeg respectively. There are likely others out there who haven't spoken up yet. As mentioned above, the league and teams have stepped in with fines and suspensions before (including last week with fellow Montreal defensive lineman Khalif Mitchell's anti-Semitic comments), so that may prove enough of a deterrent to keep players in line, but it may not.
What can Sam bring to the CFL and the Alouettes? Adapting to the league can be challenging, and perhaps especially for defensive linemen given how much further off the ball they have to start in the CFL than in the NFL, but Sam's demonstrated incredible pass-rushing skills before. His senior season at Missouri in 2013 saw him record 11.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss and 48 total tackles, earning him an All-American nod and seeing him named the SEC's co-defensive player of the year. Even his inability to catch on in the NFL doesn't really speak to his skill level, but more to the issues that league has had with acceptance; as Cyd Zeigler noted at Outsports in February, Sam's college and NFL stats make the way he was frozen out by the NFL highly unusual. The CFL might be a perfect fit for him, too, as his size (he's 6'2'', 260 pounds) made him a bit small for an NFL defensive end, but would have him as a perfect CFL DE. Thus, the Alouettes may have landed an incredible player. Perhaps even more importantly for the league, though, if Sam succeeds, he could pave the way for other CFL prospects to be open about their sexuality, and he could make it clear that the CFL is living up to its promises of being a tolerant league.
This move isn't completely unexpected, as Sam had been on the Alouettes' negotiation list for some time, and his NFL options appeared to be dwindling. Still, it's a notable move. Sam didn't have to come north of the border; he could have quit football and pursued a media or advocacy job, and that would have let him walk away with strong evidence that it was the NFL's prejudice at fault, not his skill level. By continuing to pursue his football dreams in the CFL, he's taking a risk; he'll likely face at least some discrimination, rather subtle or overt. Also, if he doesn't succeed in Montreal, his critics will have more ammunition to say that it was Sam's talent, not the NFL's approach, that kept him out of that league. Michael Sam is gambling on himself here, but that seems like a good-odds play. The CFL and the Alouettes should be thrilled to have him, both as an incredibly talented player and as a trailblazer for others.