Where Michael Sam Fits into Locker Room Culture

May 8th marks the start of an NFL Draft packed with headline making players and head-scratching questions of skill translation. Will the pro game serve as a good stage for Johnny Manziel’s athleticism? Was the success of Blake Bortles a product of weak college competition? Will Mike Evans’ weak route running hurt his draft stock? All interesting questions surrounding probable first round picks going in to the draft.

Then there’s Michael Sam: the reigning SEC defensive player of the year out of Missouri who will likely be the first openly gay player in NFL history. People like to pretend that his homosexuality isn’t a big deal and that it doesn’t warrant headlines. The fact of the matter is that it’s a huge deal. To be the first anything in a league that was established in 1919 is a pretty big deal. Now take somebody that embodies a lifestyle that has the potential to challenge the norms of football’s locker room culture and insert him in to the NFL and you’re going to generate discussion.

Too many people hear the words “locker room culture” and roll their eyes, disregarding it as nothing more than an empty term. Whether that is an exercise in accidental or intentional ignorance varies from person to person, but there is no disputing the fact that a locker room culture is prevalent in all levels of football. It starts with dependency. The success of the individual is improbable, often impossible, without collective success. This leads to trust. A quarterback has to trust his receiver to make the right break at the right time as he leads his receiver on an out route. Finally, that trust leads to comfort—the kind of comfort that leads to inappropriate jokes and that allows words to be said without first going through any kind of political correctness filter. The kind of comfort that could create a harsh environment for a homosexual player. The kind of comfort that creates a locker room culture.

How this affects Sam’s draft stock has yet to be seen. There are some teams that will draft him where they normally would have regardless of his sexual preferences. These are teams that have a strong leadership presence and a front office that has produced enough recent success to deflect the media attention that Sam’s drafting will bring. Then there are some teams that, upon hearing the news that Michael Sam unveiled his homosexuality, removed him from their draft boards entirely. The point is that concern surrounding his presence in an NFL locker room is very much based in reality. That locker room aspect of football is as intertwined in the game’s roots as anything.

Now, while Sam’s homosexuality will without a doubt affect his draft stock, at least with some teams, it is not the end all to the factors that go in to deciding on what day he will be drafted. There’s also the major factor that is his on-the-field and combined/draft day performances.

The sexiest and most looked-at statistic for a prospective situational pass rusher is their sack total. Sam’s 11.5 sacks in 2013 were the eighth best total among college athletes, an impressive ranking when considering the fact that today’s defensive linemen are more athletic and dynamic than ever. What needs to be pointed out and is often failed to mention is that nine of those sacks came in three games. Three sacks against Arkansas State, ranked 75th in sacks allowed, three sacks against Vanderbilt, ranked 96th in sacks allowed, and three sacks against Florida, ranked 77th in sacks allowed. An impressive statistic can easily be diminished when looking at when and who it was accumulated against, as is the case here.

Now let’s look at Sam’s combined performance. He ran a 4.91 forty yard dash and put up 17 reps of the 225 lb. bench press. Neither result is particularly reassuring, especially considering the fact that a pass rusher utilizes speed and strength more than almost anybody on the field. Compare those numbers to those of Everson Griffen (a 2010 fourth round pick by the Minnesota Vikings who plays the same position and has a similar body type to Sam) and those results look a whole lot worse. Griffen posted a 4.65 in the forty yard dash and put up 32 reps in the 225 bench press. Griffen, who was projected to be a situational pass rusher, was taken in the fourth round even after posting these impressive numbers. Sam’s pro day saw minor improvements as he put up 19 reps and ran a 4.71 forty, though still not great numbers for a potential defensive end.

It would be wrong to say that Sam’s homosexuality is a non-issue, just as it would be wrong to focus solely on that while ignoring his on-field performances. There are teams out there that, if they think his skill set is NFL caliber, will bring him in to fill a role on pass rushing downs. There are teams out there that won’t bring him in at all. Whether that is due to his sexuality or his football skill set has yet to be seen and likely won’t be explained by teams that pass him up. For each individual team it could be one thing or it could be both. Too often, people have both of their feet in one camp when it comes to Michael Sam. They discuss his draft stock in terms of his sexuality or in terms of his play when, in reality, both will affect his stock as a whole. Two aspects of Sam’s life that are totally unrelated could not be more linked in the world of scouting in professional sports. The point is not too get to caught up in one aspect over another because, come draft weekend, both aspects will be in play.