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Despite roster cut, Michael Sam and the Rams debunked shaky theories about gay athletes

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

It was one of the depressing and diversionary reasons used by critics to caution NFL teams against drafting Michael Sam, the hopeful result, of course, being that no one would draft him.

The claim went that if the team ever needed to cut Sam, who is trying to become the first openly gay player in league history, the organization would be subject to cries of being anti-gay or homophobic. And since in the NFL, pretty much everyone eventually gets cut, such unpleasantness was inevitable.

Thus, it was apparently better to deny the guy the opportunity altogether, because screw any principles of fairness, decency and equal opportunity. None of it, apparently, is worth risking undefined "distractions," which, of course, was just an old and ugly code.

The St. Louis Rams didn't listen and drafted Michael Sam.

On Saturday, the Rams cut Sam as they set their final roster of 53 players.

"I was pulling for him and it didn’t work out," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said at a news conference on Saturday afternoon.

For more reasons than one, here's hoping no one is so reactionary and ridiculous that they blame the team for the decision.

The NFL is a cold and cutthroat place, especially for players such as Sam, the interchangeable guys hanging around on the cutline, always susceptible to a numbers crunch. In St. Louis, there was one too many defensive ends, a position where the team is loaded. Sam played pretty well in four preseason games, registering 11 tackles and three sacks. Still, room was tight and a choice had to be made.

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Coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams drafted Michael Sam in the seventh round of May's draft. (AP)

Coach Jeff Fisher and the Rams drafted Michael Sam in the seventh round of May's draft. (AP)

It stands to reason another team in need of defensive help might grab him off waivers, but there is no guarantee. Sam isn't blessed with superior size, strength or speed. He's good, but in this meat grinder, that isn't always enough. He'll need the right moment, with the right team, playing the right system. League scouts are consistent in saying like a lot of prospects, Sam has shown he's good enough to play in the league, but not to just step into anyone's lineup.

Sam may have to wait until injuries start chipping away rosters in the weeks to come. We'll see.

"He's just not a great athlete," one NFC personnel person put it. "Plays hard though. Works hard. Smart."

Saturday's decision will be taken with great disappointment in certain quarters, especially for those who were cheering Sam on as a groundbreaking figure. Sam's jersey was one of the NFL's top sellers and everything written or broadcast about him generated interest far beyond his playing ability.

For those who could get past hating him for his personal life, the journey was, if nothing else, interesting.

His supporters should avoid casting anger at the Rams, who should be applauded for giving him a square deal in the first place. St. Louis drafted him in the seventh round, worked him through a spring of team activities and gave him ample practice reps during camp. He was given plenty of chances to shine in games, even slightly switching up positions in Thursday's preseason finale where he could show some versatility. He put plenty of work on tape, so other teams could evaluate him.

The Rams even tried him on special teams, giving him a shot to show extra value, only to come to the realization (not unusual for a defensive end) that there wasn't much there.

"It's rare that you get a defensive end that's going to go out and contribute on all four of your core special teams," Fisher told ESPN last week, before the final roster decision. "So special teams is not part of the equation for Mike."

Mostly, though, the Rams gave Sam a chance to dispel so many of the other unfounded theories about him and how an openly gay player might work in the NFL.

He was treated like a core part of the organization and the fact his coaches and teammates expressed universal support of both him as an individual and, in turn, having a gay player around as a concept, is an incredible legacy.

Those who predicted an NFL locker room wouldn't accept a gay teammate were predictably proven wrong. There wasn't a media onslaught over him. Things were calm, boring even. All the so-called "distractions" never materialized. No team should believe it would be different if it picked up Sam or any other openly gay player.

The lone flare up was an ESPN report about Sam's showering habits at the facility. The team rallied quickly around him though and blasted the news organization, making a forceful statement.

"I just think there was a lot more made of it than there should've been," Fisher said of the experience. 

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(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

Most important, the Rams treated Sam like a football player, even if that meant making a football decision in the end. It wouldn't have been right to put Sam on the team just because he is gay. Doing so would mean someone else was cut because he wasn't gay. That isn't equality either.

Some said Sam was the wrong man to blaze this trail because he wasn't a can't-miss star. The theory centered on major league baseball being smart to break its color line with Jackie Robinson because Robinson's ability was undeniable.

Sure, ideally the first openly gay player would've been a future Hall of Famer, but the idea that the movement should wait for its Jackie Robinson is ridiculous. To say that in 2014 social progress should adhere to the timeline and sensibilities of the 1940s is mind-numbing. Seventy-plus years and there's been no progress?

Hundreds of capable African-American players were denied the opportunity to play in the majors because team officials determined they weren't Jackie Robinson-level good and thus couldn't integrate. White players didn't have to be better than Robinson though, they just had to better than another white guy on the roster. Waiting for Jackie was ruinous for so many capable black ballplayers.

So Sam was it and he was fine. He came out and came in and said here I am and who I am, flaws and all. The Rams countered by saying here's your chance, prove you can make it.

It didn't work out. The NFL is always a tough deal, but it's the same tough deal for everyone.

"He has the ability to play someplace and it's gotta be the right place," Fisher said, "it's gotta be a [right] fit."

St. Louis treated Michael Sam like a football player.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

You can't ask for more than that.

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