Michael Sam was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year last season. (Brandon Wade/AP)
"Unfortunately, this is a lot more okay in society than it is in lots of locker rooms. Some locker rooms are still stuck in the ’50s." —NFL scout
The news spread quickly across the NFL Sunday night. Then again, TheNew York Times report about mid-round draft prospect Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive end, coming out as gay two weeks before the scouting combine and 12 weeks before the draft wasn’t a surprise to every team in the league.
I spoke to four club officials Sunday—three general managers, one scout—and the reaction to a third-round prospect being gay ran the gamut. I spoke to all anonymously, because with such a touchy subject, I assumed all would either no-comment me (and one other GM did) or say something so sanitized it wouldn’t really be the truth. I don’t like to do anonymous sources to write an entire story, but I felt in this case it would give the best information possible.
"Should I really care?" one GM said. "Is it going to be that big a deal? Aren’t we beyond this?"
"It’s not a shocking thing to me, and it won’t be to our organization," another GM said. "You’ll have old-school guys on your team saying, ‘Are you kidding, putting this guy on our team?’ And you’ll have other guys say, ‘Who cares? I knew two gay guys who came out in college.’ ”
"It’ll totally depend on your leadership," the scout said. "A team with strong leadership at coach and in the locker room, like New England, I would imagine, would be okay. I could see Belichick say, ‘This is the way it is. There’s no story.’ And guys would just accept him. There’d be no choice. But without that strong leadership, I could see it being divisive, and I could see a team saying, ‘We don’t need this.’ ”
(Shane Keyser/Kansas City Star/MCT via Getty Images :: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Two team reps didn’t know the story when we spoke, with me not naming names and simply asking what would happen if, as I expected, a gay player would be coming out before the combine. One GM said he’d heard that Sam might be the player. But the fourth, a general manager, said he not only knew the story and that Sam was the player, but that his team had discussed it at draft meetings in the past few days.
"We talked about it this week," the GM said. "First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player. The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: He’s going to have expectations about where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room."
I asked this general manager: "Do you think he’ll be drafted?"
"No," he said.
Sam is from Hitchcock, Texas, near Galveston on the Gulf Coast. He led the SEC this year in combined sacks and tackles for loss and was voted the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. But he is smallish for an NFL defensive end or pass rushing outside linebacker at 6-1 ½ and 260 pounds. He earned unanimous first-team All-America honors for Missouri, and teamed with first-round prospect Kony Ealy to form one of the best pressure rushing combinations in college football. Before the bombshell, Sam was rated as a third- or fourth-round prospect by many draft outlets. Mel Kiper had him as a fourth-rounder, pre-announcement, on ESPN Sunday night.
As a 4-3 defensive end in college football, his size is good and acceptable, even if he’s not as athletic as some smaller defensive ends. But NFL personnel people fear that a player of his size who is not very quick will be neutralized by the bigger, athletic NFL tackles. But there are some teams that use lots of situational pass rushers who could find a role for Sam if he were a good and willing special-teams ace. And it’s likely he would be. He has a reputation for being a team guy willing to do what his coaches ask. His teammates at Missouri obviously like him a lot. He told them about his sexuality before last season, and they kept his secret for him.
"A team with strong leadership at coach and in the locker room, like New England, I would imagine, would be okay. ... But without that strong leadership, I could see it being divisive, and I could see a team saying, ‘We don’t need this.’ ” —NFL scout
"I just wanted to make sure I could tell my story the way I wanted to," Sam told the Times. "I just want to own my truth."
Three of the four men had praise for Sam for coming out before the combine. Whatever the reason for Sam’s wanting to make his sexuality public, doing it now allows teams to meet on the issue, discuss it at length and interview him about it. "The big factor here is that the initial storm will come now, and not after he’s drafted, like maybe he was trying to hide it," one GM said. "That’s a big factor in his favor. Very big."
As this GM said, if a player makes a bombshell announcement before the combine and allows every team to interrogate him about it, he stands a better chance of the story burning out before the player ever reports to training camp. What could doom the player, he said, would be hiding this when it was likely to come out—either by the player or some other way. Teams do not like surprises. If they knew Sam came out to his team at Missouri last year—which is the word on the NFL street—and then wouldn’t tell teams before the draft, his team could feel betrayed.
The first GM—the one who seemed not to be fazed by the announcement—asks the questions that much of society would ask. Should this matter as much as it will matter over the next few days? But Jonathan Vilma, the veteran Saints linebacker and team leader, told NFL Network last week he thought a gay player "would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted."
"Unfortunately," the scout said, agreeing with Vilma, "this is a lot more okay in society than it is in lots of locker rooms. Some locker rooms are still stuck in the ’50s."
That’s why it’s naïve to suggest Sam's coming out will have no effect on where he’s drafted, as the respected Kiper said on ESPN Sunday night. It could be that a liberal owner and progressive coach like Jeffrey Lurie and Chip Kelly of the Eagles will not care at all, and if he’s there in the fourth or fifth round will grab him.
More on Michael Sam
While we don't know yet how the NFL will accept Michael Sam, there is one word for his decision to come out, Jon Wertheim writes: progress. FULL STORY
Wade Davis, a gay former NFL player, was part of Sam’s support group over the weekend. He details how the decision came about and what it means for sports and LGBT athletes. FULL STORY
I believe the majority of teammates wherever Sam goes will be accepting and supportive. But we’ve just seen the damage caused by the Incognito/Martin fracas in Miami, and the quasi-caveman attitude shown all too often by players. And the team that takes Sam has to know what the trailblazing aspect of his presence will bring: the news shows as well as sports shows, the constant buzz when the team goes on the road, the slurs bound to come his way sometime. And they’ll have to decide if it’s worth it to say they’re going to do the right thing and admit a human being who is gay to the team.
During the draft, a team that has Sam graded barely above another pass-rush prospect in the third or fourth round may ask itself: Will all the distractions—the network news trucks, the questioning of his teammates about accepting a gay teammate—be worth it? Or should we just draft the other guy and not worry about Sam’s off-field stuff?
The Michael Sam news cycle has just begun. The NFL’s a very big deal in our society. Now we’ll see if he can be a football player only, and not the center of attention to the media and 32 teams in the league.
"We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014," the NFL said in a statement Sunday night.
Everyone hopes that’s true.
The Schneider Effect.
Pete Carroll was hired as Seattle coach early in 2010, followed a week later by a Green Bay scout he didn’t know, John Schneider. It’s no secret Carroll has done a terrific job coaching the Seahawks, which we all can see. And Schneider has done a terrific job of personnel acquisition, which we all can see. But one thing about their arranged marriage that’s overlooked—I believe—is how two men who were thrown together have meshed into such a good combination.
Look how their drafts and player acquisitions have worked so well in such a short period of time. Remember: These two men have worked in concert for 49 months, and built an entire Super Bowl team, except for some scattered starters and contributors like Jon Ryan, Chris Clemons and Max Unger, in four offseasons. The breakdown of how 29 starters and key reserves or special-teamers got to Seattle in the Schneider/Carroll tenure:
* * *
A new concussion study, and questions.
An interesting new study by a team including Gregory D. Myer, the director of research in sports medicine at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, reports a correlation between a reduction of concussions and playing football at higher altitude. In the current issue of the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, Myer’s group found that of the 300 concussions involving 284 NFL players suffered in the 2012 and 2013 regular seasons, there was a 30 percent reduction in the chances for concussion in games played at stadiums with an altitude of at least 644 feet.
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Myer’s belief is that an element called "brain slosh," or how the brain moves inside the skull when concussed, is the key to a concussion. He says that at higher altitudes—Denver, for instance, is a mile above sea level—less oxygen and more blood flows into the brain, and the brain expands with more blood flowing into it. "That means the brain fills the excess space more inside the skull at higher altitudes," said Myer. "There is less brain slosh." Playing at higher altitudes, Myer theorized, increased the volume of what he called the "bubble wrap" inside the skull, creating a tighter fit and thus reducing brain slosh.
The study also looked at high school concussions, and found a concurrent 30 percent reduction in high school football concussions in games played at higher altitudes as well. Myer and his group think the NFL’s effort at stemming concussions, which is heavily based on improvements in helmet technology, is off base. "The brain already has a helmet," Myer said in an email. "It’s called a skull/cranium." No matter how good the helmet is, Myer thinks, the brain is going to move in it when struck violently.
So could this be the precursor to teams at high altitudes, such as Denver, having a built-in advantage in free agency because concussions are less likely to occur a mile above sea level? Myer admits more research is needed before concrete judgments can be made. He’s not alone there. Micky Collins, the director of the UPMC sports medicine concussion program in Pittsburgh and consultant to the Steelers, said: "That study is the first I’d heard of it, and it’s something I think needs to be reproduced in a larger sample size. Theoretically, I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that."
Asked if there is promise regarding the idea of reducing concussions from the inside out, as Myer suggests, Collins said: "I think it’s going to be hard to stop the egg yolk from moving inside the shell. Everyone is looking for this panacea."
Myer might have found it. But he’s going to have to convince NFL neurologists of the value of his data.
* * *
Selling stock in football players.
So this company has sprouted up called Fantex, and it cut a check to San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis for $4 million a couple of weeks ago. Not that this is earth-shattering, because famous players make all kinds of silly money off the field. But this caught my eye because Davis didn’t have to do anything for the money. It’s his, free and clear, with this one proviso: Ten percent of all the money he makes in football and all football-related ventures (such as working in an NFL broadcast booth or studio after his career) goes back to Fantex—and you can profit from it by buying stock in Vernon Davis. Davis cannot discuss the deal until after the Securities and Exchange Commission approves it.
"The goal," said Fantex chief executive Buck French, "is to have athletes in all sports. The motivation for them is to build their brand, and that’s the same motivation for us—help them build their brand so they can maximize their personal growth and their income."
The idea is to find well-rounded players and potential future Michael Strahans and Cris Collinsworths, smart guys who have a lucrative future after they finish playing. Davis is a good candidate. He owns a small San Jose art gallery, sponsors the U.S. Curling Team (he’s in Sochi now), and is looking for more opportunities off the field. Plus, his next contract in San Francisco could pay for much of the $4 million Fantex investment. "Vernon is an intriguing player and person," French said. Fantex will be in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Boston and New York, in order, on Tuesday through Friday of this week so French and other Fantex executives can explain the concept to investors.
Quotes of the Week
"I’m not naïve. I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the N.F.L."
—Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, to John Branch of The New York Times, in announcing he is gay Sunday night.
"Even with Stan Kroenke buying that stadium land, I would be surprised if there is an NFL team in the Los Angeles area in the next five years. I think the Rams will get a deal done to stay in St. Louis."
—Sam Farmer, football writer at the Los Angeles Times, and the journalist most plugged into the future of the NFL in Los Angeles. You’ll hear his analysis of the NFL-in-LA situation on this week’s The MMQB Podcast With Peter King when it’s posted on Monday.
"Doug! We whipped their a--. That s--- wasn’t even close."
—Russell Wilson, 90 minutes after the Seahawks won the Super Bowl, to teammate Doug Baldwin in the Seattle locker room, as captured by Sports Illustrated’s Scott Price in his insightful game story in the magazine last week.
"Guys feel like, 'If I can do this, it keeps me away from maybe Vicodin, it keeps me away from pain prescription drugs and things that guys get addicted to.' Guys look at this as a more natural way to heal themselves, to relieve stress and also to medicate themselves for pain. Guys are still going to do it."
—Free agent safety Ryan Clark, in comments to ESPN about teammates on the Steelers using marijuana.
"He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully."
—A.O. Scott of The New York Times, on actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was found dead of a suspected heroin overdose on Feb. 2 at age 46.
"Greatest actor of his generation," Charlie Rose said the other day when we spoke, and I absolutely agree.
"All of his saves have come in relief appearances."
—Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Famer slugger during one of the hundreds of Mets’ games he broadcast during his five decades in the booth with the team. Kiner died Thursday at 91. He was folksy, to say the least, and second in malaprops in baseball history to only Yogi Berra.
Stat of the Week
A Mass Mess
The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan tried to travel to the Super Bowl via mass transit with two fans. It didn't go well. FULL STORY
Actually, this stat is eight days old, but I fear too many of you missed it. My number of the week is 281.
That’s 281 minutes, or the time it took two fellows to make the eight-mile commute from Penn Station in Manhattan through the turnstiles at MetLife Stadium for the Super Bowl last week, and then back to Penn Station at the end of the game.
Four hours, 41 minutes.
If the game is ever to return to New York/New Jersey, the league and the home site are going to have to do something about the insanity of the train situation that made the commute miserable for so many people. You cannot ask a region used to driving to a stadium that seats more than 80,000 people to not drive at all—or to charge people $150 for very limited parking passes that would have allowed them to drive.
Factoid of the Week That May Interest Only Me
Pete Carroll, players’ coach. That was one of the storylines, and rightfully so, of Super Bowl week. I saw one aspect of it, as the Pro Football Writers of America’s pool reporter for Seahawk practices on Wednesday and Friday before the game. The music. Much has been made of Carroll playing loud music from the start of practices to the end. But I noticed one thing—and you will too, when you see these playlists:
"It Takes Two," Ron Base & DJ EZ Rock
"The Pretender," Foo Fighters
"Fly Away," Lenny Kravitz
"Dirt Off Your Shoulder," Jay-Z
"September," Earth, Wind and Fire
"Fast Lane," Bad Meets Evil
"Bad," Michael Jackson
"More Bounce to the Ounce," Zapp
"Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," James Brown
"Last of a Dying Breed," Ludacris
(Something by Timbaland, I missed the name)
"Danza Kudoro," Don Omar
"She's a Bad Mamma Jamma," Carl Carlton
"Big Pimpin'," Jay-Z
"Billie Jean," Michael Jackson
"We Ready," Archie Eversole
"Hypnotize," Notorious B.I.G.
"We Own It," 2 Chainz
"Give It To Me," Timbaland (feat. Nelly Furtado and Justin Timberlake)
"Face to the Floor," Chevelle
"Atomic Dog," George Clinton
(Four others I didn't catch)
"Hold Me Back," Rick Ross
"Can't Hold Us," Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
"Ambitionz Az a Ridah," Tupac
"Lose My Mind," Young Jeezy
See? Sort of Hip Hop Lite Wednesday, and more hard stuff Friday. That’s because the dynamic of the playlist changes at the end of the week. Seems that Carroll programs the tunes early, with a nod toward the players’ tastes by Friday.
"On Friday, I’ve got to give it to the fellas," Carroll told me.
Mr. Starwood Preferred Member Travel Note of the Week
The most annoying thing about air travel, February 2014 Edition, from a Delta flight last week: The guy in front of you who not only reclines his seat completely so it’s in your face, but is a bulbous guy who then falls asleep with his two meaty hands (meatier than "Man Hands" in Seinfeld) stretched behind his head over the seat and into your airspace.
So I bit them off and spat them out on the floor.
Tweets of the Week
"Our coaches and players knew all along about this and noone said anything. Just show the amount of respect we have for our family."
—@Kentrell_Mizzou, defensive teammate Kentrell Brothers on former Missouri teammate Michael Sam Sunday night.
"Hats off to you Michael Sam, that takes some guts."
—@J_Martin71, embattled Miami tackle Jonathan Martin.
"Today is National Grown Men attack high school kid on twitter for not signing w/their school! I hate seeing those stories."
—@GeoffSchwartz, the veteran Kansas City offensive lineman, on the day of one of the worst media creations in sports history, National Signing Day for top high school football prospects.
"That big dumb Texas Tech fan getting shoved is what happens when fans think they're still on Twitter. Racial slur or not, he deserved it."
—@ItsCrab, Tampa Bay tight end Tom Crabtree, after a big, dumb Texas Tech fan allegedly directed a racial slur toward Oklahoma State basketball player Marcus Smart, prompting a shove from Smart.
"Creativity is intelligence having fun. –Albert Einstein."
—@bigfresh, a web design firm in Bellingham, Wash.
"With drops factored in, Aaron Rodgers was league’s most accurate QB this season. Accurate on 79.3% of passes."
—@PFF, the Pro Football Focus Twitter account.
I think that’s great … and I’m sure it is a hugely impressive number. Does accurate mean "catchable?" And I need context. Anyone else close?
Ten Things I Think I Think
1. I think the NFL could write a book on having one’s cake and eating it too. The one thing that jumped out at me from the news that CBS has bought eight early-season Thursday night games is that the league gets to simulcast the games on NFL Network. Certainly the NFLNet ratings will be severely diminished by the games also being on CBS, but just as certainly the ratings will be higher than anything else NFLNet would put on at the time. And CBS wasn’t the only carrier the NFL asked to do this—the league mandated it as part of the package for all bidders.
2. I think Jimmy Graham is a tight end, regardless of where he lines up on the field. It’s ludicrous there’s even a discussion about whether Graham should be tendered as a tight end (at a franchise number of $6.8 million) or wide receiver (at $11.6 million). Watch the game today. You see how often teams split out tight ends and even fullbacks. Remember the San Francisco-Baltimore Super Bowl, when the 49ers split out tight ends and even fullback Bruce Miller consistently during the game? Splitting a player away from the formation doesn’t mean he’s not what he is defined as. It’s going to be a sad day for football if head coaches like Sean Payton have to consider when they formulate a game plan, "Well, I can’t flex Graham out too often, or he’ll be considered a wide receiver." Just a stupid, stupid can of worms that has been opened up.
3. I think there is one TV-related wish I have for 2014, as long as we’re on the subject: another one of those 11:35 p.m. Sunday night starts, a la San Diego at Oakland from last fall. The West Coast fans deserve one game that happens in their prime time—and I would love one I could watch all the way through after the NBC Sunday-nighter. When this game aired, I couldn’t believe all the folks interacting with me on Twitter, crazy about having a late-night gift from the football gods. Alas, because most of the Eastern time zone (with 48 percent of the TV households in America) is in bed, the NFL has no interest in another 11:35 p.m. start, I’m told.
4. I think my readers would say this to Howard Katz, the NFL’s schedule and TV czar: We want Denver at Seattle to open the season on Sept. 4. That’s not me, necessarily, though I’d certainly like to see it. That was the decisive sentiment from readers after I posed the possibilities for the NFL’s first game next season. Not sure Peyton Manning or John Fox would like it, but they’ve got to play it sometime. Why not when the weather’s likely to be best?
The MMQB at Super Bowl XLVIII
I think Seattle’s 2012 draft should be a clarion call to the smart people in our business to knock off draft grades. They are stupid. They are mindless and misleading candy for fans and those who think no one remembers what’s written or said 10 minutes after it’s published or aired. I looked back on the comments from the days after the 2012 draft—in order, Seattle’s top four picks were Bruce Irvin, Bobby Wagner, Russell Wilson and Robert Turbin—and the only good draft grade I found while searching over the weekend was a "B" from my buddy and veteran NFL scribe John Czarnecki of FOXSports.com … even though now that class, after just two years, produced the offensive and defensive signal-callers (Wilson and Wagner) of the Super Bowl XLVIII champions and was clearly the best draft of any team in the league that year. As Czarnecki wrote: "Coach Pete Carroll is hoping Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson (75th overall pick) develops into Drew Brees. The knock on Wilson is his height; he's only 5-foot-10, a tad shorter than the 6-foot Brees. But he can throw a deep ball, is very athletic and off-the-charts in the locker room. He can be a great leader." Sampling other grades:
• NFL.com: C-plus. Seattle "took a lot of chances."
• CBSSports.com: C-plus. Seattle "took Russell Wilson in the third when they just signed Matt Flynn. Why?"
• SI.com: C. "Russell Wilson has a bright future, even if Seattle really didn’t need him."
• Mel Kiper: C-minus.
• Bleacher Report: D. The Seahawks "messed up … with Russell Wilson after having signed Matt Flynn this offseason." (Another Bleacher Report draft review gave the Seahawks the only "F" grade in the class.)
• USA Today: Didn’t grade drafts with a letter, but basically did the same thing, ranking the drafts from 1 to 32. Seattle was 26th.
6. I think I am fascinated to see what kind of linebackers coach Mike Vrabel will be in Houston—and, three or four years from now, whether he starts climbing the ladder to coordinator or future head coach, or both. Strikes me as a potential rising star in the business.
7. I think I have one comment about Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright saying the Seahawks would beat Denver 90 out of 100 times: He’s right.
8. I think Jon Runyan, the former Eagles tackle and current U.S. congressman from New Jersey, has tasted politics and had enough of it. He will exit after two terms. His second term expires next January, and he’ll head back to private life and his wife and three kids, one of whom will follow in his footsteps as a football player at Michigan. Jon Runyan Jr., a high-school junior offensive lineman, was an early commit for Michigan, and will begin play there in the fall of 2015, eight months after his dad exits the halls of Congress. "Politics shouldn’t be a career, and I never intended to make it one," said Runyan the dad.
9. I think Carolina’s Greg Hardy—just 25, and coming off a 15-sack season—could be the jewel of free agency if the Panthers let him get away. Young pass rushers are what every teams wants, and there are teams with lots of cap money (Oakland comes to mind) who could make Hardy think twice about going back to Charlotte.
10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:
a. Headline of the Week: "Beloved Deaf Composer Seems None of the Above," from the Friday New York Times, about a man in Japan who passed himself off as deaf (which he is not) and a composer (he paid a ghostwriter to write music in his name), and for years was beloved (which he won’t be now) as a hero musical underdog.
b. Fifty years ago on Sunday, The Beatles debuted in America on The Ed Sullivan Show (in the Manhattan theater where David Letterman’s show is now produced) with “I Want To Hold Your Hand.’’ Never knew that, after the show, they recorded another set that was played, to another ratings bonanza, on the show two weeks later.
c. I guess Ashley Wagner didn’t feel her short-program score was fair.
Have a question or comment for Peter? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and it might be included in Tuesday’s mailbag.
d. If Oklahoma State basketball player Marcus Smart was indeed told by a fan the things that are alleged after
the incident Saturday that resulted in Smart shoving the fan
, I back Smart all the way.
e. Thank you, A-Rod, for accepting your suspension and not subjecting the world to your bunk for the next two months.
f. What an admirable figure Joe Tacopina is.
g. And I say that in absolute jest.
h. Coffeenerdness: Ground Central, on East 52nd in Manhattan, was the site of my first business-meeting-at-a-New York-coffee-shop the other day. You passed the test very nicely, Ground Central, with that swell and comfy back room.
i. Beernerdness: Tried Carib, the lager from Trinidad and Tobago, the other day. Not bad. A tad stouter Heineken.
j. Steve Gleason’s a huge Liverpool fan. Who knew? Tweeted Gleason after Liverpool’s surprisingly decisive 5-1 win over Arsenal: "#Carnage. #LFC."
k. Charles Barkley is such a one-of-a-kind analyst. On a conference call to promote TNT’s NBA All-Star Game stuff next week, Barkley said of the Nets, a team on a 12-4 streak at the time of his words: "The Nets stink, man … They’re beating up on a bunch of ugly chicks in the Eastern Conference. Don’t act like they’ve got a good team. Stop it."
The Adieu Haiku
Dylan sang it well:
Don’t criticize what you can’t