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Coming Out Complicates Player's Prospects, NFL Execs Say

Michael Sam has been a star defensive end at the University of Missouri. He's been an All-American and The Associated Press SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

A senior, he's been among the players scouts have said are sure to be selected by an NFL team when the league holds its draft on May 8-9.

But now that Sam is also the first active NFL prospect or player to announce that he's gay, we wondered: Has his coming out moved him further down the draft board — meaning he's now more likely to be selected late in the draft?

That, in turn, could mean his prospects to play in the NFL have dimmed.

"In blunt terms," SI.com reports, the answer is yes.

Sports Illustrated's website spoke with eight NFL executives and coaches — "who were granted anonymity ... for their honesty." According to SI.com, "their answers were consistently unsparing."

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," one of the executives told SI.

"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down [in the draft]," a veteran NFL scout added. "There's no question about it. It's human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote 'break that barrier'?"

A former NFL general manager tells SI that it's "not that [teams are] against gay people." But for the team that selects Sam, "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?' "

Let's pause here for a football reality check.

From what we're seeing, though Sam has been a star he wasn't going to be a first- or second-round pick before Sunday's news.

Prior to his announcement, Sam was being talked about as a player who wouldn't be drafted until the third round or later, SI and BleacherReport.com say. One thing hurting him is his size. "At 6'2" and 255 pounds, Sam is small for a 4-3 defensive end," BleacherReport notes.

While an NFL team might look to make Sam into a linebacker, BleacherReport adds that "at the Senior Bowl in January, Sam availed himself at the opportunity to work out for scouts as an outside linebacker. Things did not go well."

Dan Kadar, SB Nation's NFL draft editor, has tweeted several times about Sam's prospects as a linebacker. "He struggled big time at the Senior Bowl working as a linebacker," Kadar wrote Sunday. "Just looked lost in space. I don't see top 100."

Now there's his groundbreaking news.

ESPN has collected some of the tweets from NFL players who are praising Sam for his courage. But as Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes writes, "Realistically my 'don't give a damn' attitude isn't everyone's, so there are some that this won't go over so well with."

Time magazine's Sean Gregory is in the camp that says while Sam may have "hurt his earnings" by coming out, "all 32 NFL teams aren't going to pass on a prospect like Sam. They can't be that stupid."

Sam's case is different, Gregory and others say, than that of basketball player Jason Collins — who "was on the downside of his NBA career" when he announced last spring that he's gay. Collins hasn't played in the NBA this year.

But the consensus this morning certainly seems to be that Sam, already a player whom some scouts had doubts about, has slipped down the draft board because of his announcement. League executives and scouts aren't saying that's right; just that it's the reality.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Memmott is NPR's supervising senior editor for Standards & Practices. In that role, he's a resource for NPR's journalists – helping them raise the right questions as they do their work and uphold the organization's standards.