Giving credit to Jeff Fisher, who refused to hide from history.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Michael Sam recently became the first openly gay athlete to be drafted by a professional football team. Selected by the St. Louis Rams towards the end of the final round of the annual NFL draft, the event triggered shock waves through the world of professional sports and beyond—all the way up to the White House.
It is widely acknowledged that the 2013 SEC Co-Player of the Year will have an uphill battle making the Rams 53-man roster. It’s also been widely reported that it took the Rams’ front office decision-makers by surprise when Head Coach Jeff Fisher announced in the team’s draft “war room”: “Let’s go get Michael Sam!” The team had never planned to take Sam. The Rams were stacked across the defensive line (Sam’s position), and had other needs all over the field. In a world of data-driven decision-making and cool, calculated business decisions, Fisher’s act had a defiant and out-of-place dimension that has largely eluded the gaze of the media who have largely told the story through the eyes of the man affected most by the decision, Michael Sam.
But the question remains: Why did Fisher and the Rams select Sam? Obviously, the Fisher and the Rams have publically stated that the pick had nothing to do with symbolism and everything to do with football. But the facts tell a different story. The moments immediately preceding the Sam pick give a window into Fisher’s mind. The Rams owned two picks in a row—at 249 and 250—but as NFL media columnist Michael Silver reported, Fisher made it clear to team officials that he wanted Sam to get picked at 249 and Tennessee State center, Demetrius Rhaney to go at 250.
It’s an irrelevant distinction to anyone other than someone painstakingly aware of symbolism. Fisher not only didn’t want Sam to go undrafted, he didn’t want Sam to be the Rams’ last selection, for the history-making selection to be written off by naysayers as some sort of publicity stunt.
The moments immediately following Sam’s selection also give insight into Fisher’s thought process. While other coaches might’ve poo-pooed the symbolism of the occasion and refused to address anything other than Michael Sam’s performance on the field, Rams Coach Fisher seemed to embrace…nay…revel in the societal watershed.
“In a world of diversity that we live in, I’m honored to be part of this,” Fisher told reporters. He later called the event a “historic moment” on par with the team’s signing of Kenny Washington in 1946. “I don’t know if you’re aware of it,” he told reporters, “But we were the first NFL team to sign an African-American player— a year before Jackie Robinson signed the baseball contract.”
This doesn’t mean that Jeff Fisher and the Rams don’t believe that, regardless of historical significance, Michael Sam isn’t a good football player with a chance to make the Rams roster (though immediately after the draft the team signed West Texas A&M defensive lineman Ethan Westbrooks as a rookie free agent). What we should take from all of this is that Rams Head Coach Jeff Fisher distinctly, uniquely, and genuinely felt called to action in the waning moments of the NFL Draft.
Had Sam gone undrafted (which came seven picks away from happening), it would have besmirched a league that in recent years has tended to shy from the march of progress. In the midst of a head injury epidemic, a high profile bullying incident on the Miami Dolphins, and an epithetically-named Washington football franchise, Fisher’s decision to draft Sam is a tacit declaration that professional sports can’t just passively watch from the sidelines rationalizing that they only reflect societal injustices—they perpetuate them and through courageous leadership have the power to redress them. Whether inside or outside the locker room, marginalized voices will be vulnerable to the extent that leadership doesn’t take a stand.
The latest ripple from the Michael Sam story was the Oprah network’s plan to shoot a “docu-series” about his journey to the NFL, and its subsequent decision to postpone the show to avoid creating any “distractions” for Sam, the Rams, and the NFL. The irony, of course, is that football and its world of 10,000 square foot jumbotrons and gyrating half-naked women on the sideline is America’s favorite distraction. A distraction from a distraction could force all of us to have a more intimate relationship with our social universe.
As the Michael Sam story shows, not all distractions divide a team. A good distraction—artfully executed—can bring a team—not to mention, a country, together.