PHILADELPHIA – Take it from the center of the big top: Media circuses don’t last, and any talk that Missouri defensive end Michael Sam will be a “distraction” that affects his eventual NFL employer is mere hyperbole.
Last summer, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper was caught on video using the most despicable racial slur in the American vernacular. The incident brought on a media firestorm, including the prediction that Cooper’s presence would create racial tension and fracture the Eagles’ locker room.
I should know. I wrote a column saying just that and suggesting the Eagles should at least suspend Cooper and would be justified in releasing him outright. I still think a suspension would have been reasonable (the franchise once suspended DeSean Jackson for being late to a special teams meeting), but realize I underestimated the ability of Cooper’s teammates to handle the situation.
Five years before that, the Eagles signed quarterback Michael Vick, arguably the most unpopular football player in the world, right after he had spent 21 months in Leavenworth Federal Prison. The signing of Vick caused a major distraction, including angry protests and media criticism.
Let’s be clear: We’re not equating Sam’s decision to reveal his sexual orientation to Cooper’s transgression or Vick’s crimes. Not in the least. We’re talking here only about the perception of a player’s impact on a franchise as a distraction, either within the locker room or as focus of media attention.
What we learned in each case was that NFL locker rooms are far more mature, far more diverse workplaces than they appear from the outside. Vick was accepted immediately by his teammates and developed into a respected elder statesman during his five seasons in Philadelphia. After some early wariness, Cooper was embraced by many teammates, accepted by others and at least tolerated by the rest.
Those things pass, they really do. The Eagles went to the playoffs after each of their first two seasons with Vick on the roster. They went back to the playoffs this year just months after the Cooper incident.
For a team to pass on drafting Sam because of the possible media attention or issues in the locker room is ultimately a copout.
Would the Eagles draft the Missouri defensive end, who projects as an outside linebacker in the NFL?
I have no doubt they will evaluate Sam based purely on his potential to help their team on the field. Owner Jeff Lurie, who was guided by his own conscience in signing Vick and keeping Cooper, wouldn’t have it any other way. General manager Howie Roseman and head coach Chip Kelly are way too forward-thinking to dismiss a good player.
If the Eagles aren’t that high on Sam, it’s because they place a premium on size and athleticism at the position he plays. Sam is listed at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds. He was very productive at Missouri, but it’s the job of NFL talent evaluators to project how a player will do at the next level, within their team’s system.
An objective evaluation might lead the Eagles to pass on Sam. But then, an objective evaluation is exactly what Sam, and every other prospect, deserves.