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The Thamel/Evans column on Michael Sam is Reprehensible

That not a peep was heard, through a 12-2 season and a Cotton Bowl victory, says more about football’s readiness to accept gay players than thousands of speculative words. — Michael Tanier, Sports on Earth

By now you know that Michael Sam, a star defensive end at Missouri, is set to become the first openly-gay, active NFL player. Regular readers know that I rarely use this platform to criticize other writers. But an article by Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans discussing how Sam’s sexual orientation will cause his draft stock to drop is worthy of a deviation from my general rule. [Update: A reader sent me a great article by Stefan Fatsis that goes into further detail on the failure of SI in this story. Go ahead and read his article and then come back; don’t worry, this article will still be here.]

[Sam’s] decision to come out prior to May’s NFL draft will make his path to the league daunting, eight NFL executives and coaches told SI.com.

In blunt terms, they project a significant drop in Sam’s draft stock, a publicity circus and an NFL locker room culture not prepared to deal with an openly gay player. Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was projected as a mid- to late-round draft pick prior to his announcement.

While none of the executives overtly condemned Sam’s decision, their opinions illuminated an NFL culture in which an openly gay player — from the draft room to the locker room — faces long odds and a lonely path.

The executives and coaches were granted anonymity by SI.com for their honesty. Their answers were consistently unsparing.

At first glance, it felt odd that — in an article asking NFL executives and coaches for honest information — Thamel and Evans did not even mention the fact that NFL executives and coaches do not volunteer honest information to the media about a draft prospect in February. But after reading the full article, it’s easy to see why that omission occurred. Sam’s draft status is not the point of the article; rather, his stock is simply a vehicle to “inform” us that the NFL has a culture that will not accept an openly gay player. Then, in what I would consider to be a reprehensible bit of journalism, Thamel and Evans focused exclusively on those who bashed anonymously and made no effort to find those who would praise Sam publicly.

“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

A teammate risks chemical imbalance, touches Sam anyway

A teammate risks chemical imbalance, touches Sam anyway.

What does it mean to say that we are a decade or two away from being “ready” for an openly-gay player? What does Unnamed Personnel Assistant expect to happen between now and 2029 that will make the NFL “ready” for an openly-gay player? What does being “ready” even mean? Nate Burleson, Sheldon Richardson, and countless other NFL players have publicly praised and supported Sam, which I guess is not as insightful as to the dynamic of an NFL locker room as the anonymous musings of Unnamed Personnel Assistant.

More shockingly, how could Thamel and Evans not touch the “football is a man’s man game” line? Is the journalistic standard so low that we may tacitly approve of the implication that gay men are not manly men because an anonymous executive said as much? I would not have that quote under my byline, but that’s just me.

Kudos to the investigative powers of Thamel and Evans to discover that gay slurs are commonplace in the locker room. As we have learned from the Richie IncognitoJonathan Martin scandal, so are racial slurs. Would Thamel-Evans and/or the anonymous personnel assistant say we are not ready for racially integrated locker rooms?

When the anonymous executive said that a gay man would chemically imbalance a locker room, a responsible journalist would ask what the hell that means. Based on the apparent lack of any follow-up question, it appears that neither Thamel nor Evans did as much, and were instead happy to get their soundbite.

“I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down,” said a veteran NFL scout. “There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?'”

The first question you might have after seeing those quotes is why is a veteran NFL scout not being asked for his thoughts on Michael Sam the football prospect. Your second question should be in regards to why Thamel and Evans chose to run a quote about where Sam will be drafted from a scout and not an executive, although you can probably answer that question yourself. As to the scout’s question, I think that answer is pretty obvious: several teams would want to be the team to break that barrier. The Patriots appear to be one, and the Lions, Giants, and Packers all publicly stated that they would welcome Sam on their team. So either Thamel and Evans are such incompetent journalists1 that they couldn’t find a source in time to publicly say as much, or they simply weren’t interested in finding one.

If Sam is among that group of [similarly-rated] players, the potential distraction of his presence — both in the media and the locker room — could prevent him from being selected.

“That will break a tie against that player,” the former general manager said. “Every time. Unless he’s Superman. Why? Not that they’re against gay people. It’s more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?'”

The former general manager said that it would take an NFL franchise with a strong owner, savvy general manager and veteran coach to make drafting Sam work. He rattled off franchises like Pittsburgh, Green Bay, San Francisco, Baltimore and Indianapolis as potential destinations. The former general manager added that a team with a rookie head coach would not be an ideal landing spot.

Artificially creating a small market for a player is Smoke Screen 101, an issue that Thamel and Evans never discuss. To the larger point, there is an element of truth that some general managers are going to break ties against Sam. But the two journalists appear to be interested in muckraking and little more. Consider the questions left unasked:

  • Are there any teams that will break ties in favor of Sam? Will certain owners or general managers be attracted to the prospect of positioning himself as this generation’s Branch Rickey, the general manager who signed Jackie Robinson? Almost certainly.
  • What is the media’s responsibility and role in this story as the medium becomes the message. The media’s coverage of Sam seems likely to impact the very events — i.e., his draft stock, and perhaps his career — the media is covering. This, along with any concomitant moral responsibility that may or should be attached to such reporters, is a worthy topic for discussion that is instead ignored.
  • If teams break ties against Sam, is that appropriate? Is such a decision acceptable, or worthy of our condemnation? Again, Thamel and Evans are mind-bogglingly silent on this point. And let’s not confuse being neutral with being unbiased. The distinction between reporter and columnist is already blurred when picking and choosing your anonymous sources. I would have gained respect for Thamel and Evans had they followed that quote with a paragraph along these lines: “We don’t doubt that some decision makers in draft rooms across the country will break ties against Sam. That’s unfortunate, but we understand that general managers with tenuous job security are hesitant to take the road less traveled. That doesn’t make it right, but we acknowledge that many people lack the courage to be implements of social change, and that’s true even when they’re jobs aren’t on the line. Still, it is hard not to be disturbed by a system that would see Sam’s draft stock fall because of his declaration.”

But, of course, there was no such paragraph. And then, incredibly, Thamel and Evans found more ways to be horrible.

Sam’s announcement did not come as a surprise to most NFL teams. Sam’s sexual orientation was considered an open secret in his college town of Columbia, Mo., and the assistant personnel man said he believed “90 percent of teams” were already aware that Sam was gay and had dropped him on their draft boards. He estimated that of the 32 NFL franchises, only two or three didn’t know prior to Sunday night’s news. He projected that it will impact Sam’s draft status “quite a bit.”

Multiple NFL executives questioned Sam’s decision to come out now, as he will be the biggest story in football between now and the NFL draft on May 8. The NFL combine from Feb. 22-25 could turn into a four-day referendum on Sam’s professional future. And his place in the NFL draft will be endlessly debated between now and May.

Those ellipses in between the two paragraphs represent just one omitted paragraph. I make note of this, because apparently Thamel and Evans forget what they wrote two paragraphs earlier. Nearly every team knew that Sam was gay, all of his college teammates knew, and many in Columbia were aware, too. Is it really hard to understand why Sam would want to take control of his destiny? Sam’s sexual orientation was already known, and was going to be a topic of conversation. He risked his status being leaked to the public, with Sam then being forced to respond to such rumors. Shouldn’t we applaud his decision to own his truth? By coming out — literally — and letting the world know, Sam chose to be proactive and aggressive, character traits previously were assumed to be well-received by NFL executives and coaches, even anonymous ones.

It is hard to overstate the importance of a gay person’s decision to come out. According to the American Psychological Association: “Coming out is often an important psychological step for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people. Research has shown that feeling positively about one’s sexual orientation and integrating it into one’s life fosters greater well-being and mental health. This integration often involves disclosing one’s identity to others; it may also entail participating in the gay community. Being able to discuss one’s sexual orientation with others also increases the availability of social support, which is crucial to mental health and psychological well-being.”

Was that too challenging for Thamel and Evans to discover? Were they unable to come up with an answer when asked why Sam chose to make his announcement right before the time when a draft prospect’s mental and psychological well-being gets stressed the most? The decision to come out has unique implications for African Americans, so much so that the Human Rights Campaign has published a resource guide on the subject specifically geared for African Americans. The guide opens with this quote from a Howard University student: “Fear can be paralyzing and can often trap you in silence. It’s the fear of going against our religious upbringing, of losing friends and families, and of shattering the dream that most parents have for us as children. But I have found that coming out has not only strengthened the bonds I have with the people in my closest circle, but has also made me feel whole and complete as a person. The day I chose to live without regret or shame was the day I chose to really live.”

If anonymous executives want to criticize Sam for the timing of his decision of choosing to live his life without shame or regret, their opinions are as valuable as the names attached to them. It was not unintentional that I did not link to Thamel and Evans’ article. But I will link to another article at CNN SI, a much more worthy one from the always terrific Stewart Mandel.

  1. I’ll note that this is a legitimate possibility. []
  • MP

    Not sure where you’re going with this column. My read is: you want NFL execs to be more tolerant than they actually are; when someone writes a story highlighting the intolerance of NFL execs, you blame the writer(s) for not depicting the story you want to hear.

    • James

      My read: Chase is upset Thamel and Evans wrote a one-sided article without applying any critical thinking on the subject. If Chase can find players and teams supporting Michael Sam, then two SI writers with access to multiple front office personnel should be able to find them too. Since they didn’t include any mention of Sam’s supporters, it speaks to a strong bias (Thamel and Evans are pushing their own opinions by selectively quoting one side), a lack of journalistic integrity (if they wanted to be ‘controversial’ for page views), or incompetency (they couldn’t find any supporters, even though we know they exist).

      • Chase Stuart

        This is pretty much spot on.

    • Chase Stuart

      I think the NFL is much more tolerant than how it is portrayed by this article. I am not of the belief that an SEC team in middle America filled with 17-23 year old players is more tolerant than a group of professional men.

  • Sunrise089

    Chase I hope I’ve posted enough to get across that I love your stuff, but this wasn’t my favorite article. I wish the best for Sam and don’t think in the long term his orientation will have much effect on his career since the NFL is largely a meritocracy, which IMHO is the way it should be. But things seem a bit meta- when I’m reading a column critiquing a column critiquing a planned media release describing someone’s personal life.

    On topic – you mentioned this, but I think for any draft prospect with some characteristic outside the norm, the ‘winners curse’ may help then out (curse used without any attempt to disparage). If 31 potential X rounders seem about the same but one seems equal in football quality but wildly different in off the field impact, I think that benefits the player since it only takes one team to view that as a positive for moral or business reasons. I don’t think it’s that different than some teams being higher on Manziel for personality reasons even if the average team is turned off by his antics.

    Less on topic – the Sam treatment in the sports media, at least from the writers I tend to follow, is hard for me to reconcile compared to Tebowmania. I have every reason to be biased in favor of Tebow – UF grad, lived in Jacksonville, and come from a religious background. One thing I’ve been consistent on though is defending the ncaa and nfl establishment to less football savvy friends and family who view every heismann awarded to someone else, or player drafted higher, or more recently every release as stemming from people opposed to Tebow’s religious views. I argued and still feel that while there are certainly some anti-religious folks involved in football, and while some of the coaching or front office personnel on his teams during Tebow’s time in the league may have hoped for failure, those two groups didn’t overlap and Tebow largely achieved and failed on his merits in football terms. All that said though, the same sort of ‘circus’ claims got made about Tebow – divide locker room, too much press, why would a team wish that on themselves, etc. Maybe I missed them, but I didn’t notice nearly as much play in the forward thinking football commentary world criticizing those stories.

    • Chase Stuart

      No problem, Sunrise. I always appreciate your views.

      I agree the winners’ curse could help Sam in theory, although someone like Myron Rolle would be a point on the other side. My issue was with Thayer and Evans, not the NFL, and I suspect he will get a fair shake. There are gay players across the NFL, and their teammates know about this, and there have not been media explosions.

      I’m not quite sure what the Tebow point is that you’re trying to make, but I won’t argue if you think the media circus has made it much harder for him to secure NFL employment.

  • BusMan

    Thanks for this column, Chase. Sam’s coming out is proving a truly watershed moment.

  • Carlos Johnson

    First let me say that I commend Mike Sam for coming out and “owning his truth.” But this piece is ridiculous. Thamel and Evans aren’t columnists. They aren’t supposed to inject their personal views into a story. They are to report the news. You want editorial/column pieces then Stewie Mandel or a blog is what you want.

    • Brandon

      You completely missed Chase’s point. Thamel and Evans are being trashed by almost everyone else in their profession not because they left their stances on the issue unspoken, but because they (pretty obviously) sought out one opinion on Sam’s announcement and made it seem like it’s league consensus. If you can’t tell that they were trying to shape the news as they saw fit, then I don’t know what to tell you.

      • Chase Stuart

        Thanks, Brandon. You are correct. The idea that what Thamel and Evans reported was news without a slant is untenable; this was every bit an editorial/column.

  • Carlos Johnson

    Also have you ever considered that the point of the piece was to expose the ugly side of the league that some in the NFL would not have you know exist? How can we ever move forward if our only response to those we disagree with is to shout them down or shame them into silence?

    • Chase Stuart

      I did consider that, Carlos. Again, I don’t believe that the ugly side of the league is as it is portrayed in this article. And if the league resembles the caricature presented in this article, the failure to ask anything other than a softball question is inexcusable.

  • Tim Truemper

    As a professional psychologist, I want to commend Chase’s research (example, use of the APA info) and thoughtfulness in critiquing the Thamel and Evans article. I found that article to be sophomoric and hysteria making. As noted above, gay players have been in the NFl and known by their cohorts. Full acceptance is probably not there but this article is certainly of no service to that end. Chase points out two quotes that are prime examples of that make the issue more indelicate than needed (“a man’s man game” and “chemical imbalance in a locker room”) are beyond the pale unless further inquiry is made on the meaning of those quotes. I would surmise that quote #1 refers to stereotypical ideas of masculinity which would increase bias against homosexuality. The second is about team chemisty. But the alternative meaning of those quotes within the context of homosexual intolerance indicates a “tin ear” on the part of those writers, or perhaps a willingness to let those quotes stand as they are and irresponsibly inflame the issue.

    • Chase Stuart

      Great comment, Tim. Much better than I could have said myself.

  • wiesengrund

    It was also funny to read “Indianapolis” and “NFL franchise with a strong owner, savvy general manager and veteran coach ” in the paragraph. A third-year HC together with a GM, who savvily traded a first rounder for Trent Richardson, and the one owner in the entire league, who by himself redefined the meaning of the term “distraction”, definitely does not fit the bill of what said former GM wanted to say. Then again, that might just be why he is a former GM.

  • curt durt

    The NFL will draft 3 headed aliens if it will help them win games and the locker room will put their differences aside for the same reason. People writing articles suggesting otherwise aren’t paying attention.

  • Manik

    He did go lower in the draft than expected right?

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