What if I told you that Michael Sam wouldn’t be in the NFL right now if not for Jason Collins?
Okay, I would be lying, because he would still be in the NFL. He would’ve been plucked out of the pool of undrafted free agents, maybe by the St. Louis Rams, or maybe by another team. He would’ve arrived to his new workplace with significantly more fanfare than his undrafted peers (yes, even more than Toledo’s Bernard Reedy and Abilene Christian’s Charcandrick West combined.) But undrafted free agent signings aren’t exciting. Instead of getting the chance to play with his food on national television, Michael Sam would have merely been the most-Googled name of the hundreds on the above list. He still would have tearfully answered a phone call from an NFL team, and still would have shared hugs, kisses and other expressions of joy with members of his family, but all of this would have occurred as a footnote to the NFL Draft. There was no better or higher-profile showcase for the start of Sam’s NFL career, even if it happened in the 7th round, when the TV coverage amounts to “let’s show you the name of this guy you’ve never heard of while we discuss Johnny Manziel’s chances for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [they are better than Jethro Tull’s].” When the Rams used the 249th overall pick to draft Sam, they offered a meager vote of confidence that the guy who’s caught between defensive end and linebacker might actually make the team. They offered fans some reason to believe that a #96 replica jersey could be worth the $99.95 (plus shipping) investment. “First openly gay player drafted” sounds a lot better than “first openly gay player to play in a couple preseason games,” if that’s what Sam’s career amounts to in the end.
Back to Jason Collins. Aside from the fact that he and Michael Sam are both gay athletes, their situations are very different. One will be spending his entire career, however long it may last, as an openly gay athlete, while the other waited to come out until the age-35 season of a career that may be over now that the Miami Heat have taken care of the Brooklyn Nets. Professional basketball lags far behind NFL football in America’s collective consciousness; the name “Jason Collins” is still met with a lot of questions of “wasn’t he a quarterback or something?”
But here’s why Sam should feel indebted to the older, more obscure player who took the court a few months before Sam will take the field: Collins was a case study in the reaction of American sports fans to openly gay athletes. Sure, he was a case study in how the fans would react to an aging, end-of-the-bench player who has had more fouls than points scored in the majority of his NBA seasons. But Jason Collins proved that things could go swimmingly for an openly gay basketball player. There were no beer bottles or condom water balloons thrown onto the court by fans. No teammates felt the need to shower in their parkas, and no plagues of locusts descended on the Barclays Center. Life was as normal as could be expected in the city of Brooklyn.
Things went well for Collins in the public relations department despite the fact that his in-game performance was, by many measures, terrible: he managed just 19 rebounds and one (ONE!) block in 172 minutes played for the Nets. Despite Herculean efforts, I do not yet have access to the private business conversations of NFL front offices. But any GMs who feared having Michael Sam on their team would create a doomsday scenario surely must have had their fears at least partially allayed by Collins’ uneventful and no-worse-than-usual tenure on the Nets, even if the effect was subtle and unrealized.
Seeing that an openly gay athlete could compete at the highest level and everyone involved could live to tell about it may have been just the reassurance the Rams needed to take a chance on Michael Sam. The fact that Sam is entering the NFL as a player defined by his sexuality, while Jason Collins had over a decade to cement his status as an elder statesman of the NBA (not the President or anything, but maybe a Junior Alderman in Boise) means that the two players aren’t directly comparable in how they will be received. But even if Collins made just a tiny sliver of a difference (I contend he managed much more than that), his minuscule contribution may have been all Sam needed. Sam was incredibly close to missing out on the draft entirely; the objective difference in football ability between Sam and the most sought-after undrafted free agent is essentially nothing, and many non-Ram teams surely value their undrafted rookies more highly than they valued him during the draft. Had just one or two compensatory draft picks ended up in different hands, it’s likely that Sam’s name would not have been called at all. The “Collins Bump” (a move that results in a personal foul) may not be very powerful, but I’m willing to bet it was the little stroke of luck Michael Sam needed to get a proper welcome to the NFL.