Michael Sam Needed To Put All His Focus On Football To Succeed On The Field

For Michael Sam, says Kate Fagan, the past 18 months have looked nothing like they were supposed to after he was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi

That did not go well.

Michael Sam was supposed to be a change-maker, a trailblazer, a 260-pound hulk of a man who would tear down stereotypes and anything else that got in his way. In his wake, so many others were going to walk.

Professional sports had been changed for good.

But for Michael Sam, the past 18 months have looked nothing like they were supposed to; the whole thing derailed almost from the very first day.

As we all know, Sam never made an NFL roster. And as of Friday, the former Missouri star is no longer in the CFL, either. The 25-year-old left the Montreal Alouettes after playing just one regular-season game, citing mental-health concerns in a series of tweets sent just days after he made his debut with the Alouettes.

The 2013 SEC co-defensive player of the year is now back home -- out of football, perhaps for good. He's asking for privacy, hoping to piece his life back together.

And today, the NFL has the same number of openly gay players as it did two years ago just before Sam's courageous, landmark announcement: zero.

So what exactly happened?

Ever since Sam publicly announced he is gay, on Feb. 10, 2014, everyone kept talking about whether he -- or more specifically, his sexuality -- would be a distraction in the NFL. But we actually never discovered the answer to that question. Because the truth is that Sam distracted himself.

Actually, that's not precise enough: Sam allowed himself to be distracted.

That's the irony of this situation.

He performed poorly at the rookie combine. He was run ragged making media and commercial appearances in the months leading up to, and after, the 2014 NFL draft. At the NFL's veteran combine, in March, Sam ran a 5.07 in the 40-yard dash, killing his short-term NFL chances. The team of advisors around him jumped at every contract placed in front of them, including appearing on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," which ended only one month before Sam signed with the Alouettes.

Sam was a football player who never appeared ready to play football. Everyone around him seemed to have many different interests -- and too few involved the game itself. He showed up out of shape in Montreal, then took a leave of absence a week later.

For those only casually following Sam's career, two storylines seem to exist about what happened: Sam didn't make the NFL because he's gay. Or, no one is quite sure if Sam didn't make the NFL because he's gay.

Either way, the takeaway for a young male athlete -- gay or straight -- is that being gay in pro sports is still a very big deal. Though exactly how big of a deal remains unclear: It's definitely the headline, but enough to keep someone out of the league?

That remains murky.

The next NFL prospect who also happens to be gay probably isn't going to like those odds. Sam was supposed to clarify things: He would get drafted, make a roster and contribute every Sunday. Everyone was supposed to live happily ever after. At the beginning, this seemed the likely outcome. But to make something look effortless, almost inevitable, actually takes a lot of hard work.

And Sam worked hard. Just not always at the right thing.

All of this makes an important point. Because if the truth were that Sam did everything right, was pulling (and being pulled) in all the right directions, and couldn't make the NFL? Well, that would be even more disastrous for the future of inclusion in the league.

But that's not what happened here.

In some alternate universe, Sam is drafted by an NFL team with space at defensive end. (The St. Louis Rams, who chose him in the seventh round in 2014, were already stacked at his position.) In this alternate reality, Sam makes the team's practice squad. He stays locked on football. He doesn't have time to tour around giving speeches, spending all that time doing everything except the thing he's supposed to make a living doing: playing football.

Instead, Sam's on-field disappointments create an uncomfortable space for the LGBT sports movement. This could be a chance for the movement to grow, but that growth would involve acknowledging certain missteps -- not just by Sam himself, but by those around him. Over the weekend, a young prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system, David Denson, announced he is gay. He is years from making the big leagues, if he makes it at all, so these issues aren't going anywhere. But the public nature of Michael Sam's story, played out under the glare of a very bright spotlight, always ensured that his successes would resonate more.

And so, too, would his failures.

The storyline around Sam is cluttered. And that makes the future even trickier for athletes such as Denson.

Being a gay athlete is hard. But the thing too few people are talking about is that the biggest hurdle isn't winning over teammates and coaches inside the locker room. It's keeping the crush of requests -- many of them from LGBT-friendly organizations wanting to champion the athlete -- from becoming a distraction.

The takeaway for a young football player shouldn't be that you can't come out. It should be that you must have a really smart game plan for coming out. And the strategy must keep football as the focal point.

Michael Sam taught us valuable lessons. They just aren't what we expected them to be.