TIME NFL

Roger Goodell Is the Committee Commissioner

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell News Conference
National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a press conference on Sept. 19, 2014 inside the New York Hilton Midtown in New York City. Alex Goodlett—Getty Images

Answers were hard to find during Roger Goodell's eagerly awaited press conference. But there will be a committee

You hoped for something different, but in these kind of settings, Roger Goodell has always been a master of empty words. His annual state-of-the-NFL address press conference, at the Super Bowl, is always worth skipping. Things got moved up a bit this year, thanks to the heat Goodell has faced over the NFL’s handling of recent domestic abuse cases. And the main takeaway from Goodell’s frantically awaited press conference Friday—which was only held after Goodell’s nine-day silence in the midst of the NFL’s worst PR worst crisis in years became utterly indefensible—was that a committee would figure things out.

Ah yes, the committee, the task force, the best way to buy time. The committee itself won’t even be in place, probably, until right before the Super Bowl. That committee, Goodell said, would re-write the NFL’s personal conduct policy—which he himself instituted after becoming commissioner in 2007. Everything is on the table, Goodell said. Maybe he’ll give up some of the judge and jury power the owners granted him, after they wanted to punish misbehaving players to clean up the NFL’s image. And ironically, that very same policy—because of the maddening inconsistencies in its execution—is tarnishing it.

Yes, the NFL’s funding of the domestic violence hotline, as one example, is going to help a lot of people. That shouldn’t be taken lightly. But why now? If the NFL really cared about domestic violence, this kind of donation would have been made years ago. But no, it comes only after a horrifying tape of a star running back punching a woman becomes public. So you can’t talk about getting it right, about being a societal leader, when such moves, though noble and important, are a response. When they’re defense. The NFL can’t hold itself as a “microcosm of society,” as Goodell said, when most of society isn’t bashing heads every week. The league did the same things with concussions, and funded research and restricted return-to-play only after the league was being sued. Heads have been banging together for years. Why now?

Goodell promised transparency and accountability, but punted the most sensitive Ray Rice questions over to the “independent” investigation former FBI head Robert Mueller will lead to figure out who knew what and when. If the personal conduct policy is going to be reworked, it needs to be codified. What exactly triggers punishment? An arrest? An indictment? A conviction?

Tune in after the Super Bowl. In the meantime, tune in Sunday, as so many people surely will. No amount of bad press has stopped the NFL’s financial windfalls. No committee is needed for that.

TIME Football

Football’s Ultimate Cost: The Chad Stover Story

The Stover family never expected that their son wouldn't walk off the field

It was halloween night, and the Tipton Cardinals needed a tackle. trailing 27-18 in the opening round of the Missouri high school playoffs, a stop here—on first down and 10 with less than seven minutes to play—would help keep Tipton’s fading season alive.

As the running back took the Handoff and sprinted right, Tipton’s Chad Stover, a 16-year-old defensive back, dove at his legs with arms outstretched. Chad’s head collided with the runner’s right thigh as the back dodged the tackle to gain another few yards. Chad went down, and his helmet smacked into the ground.

Chad wobbled to his feet, and after a time-out, he jogged to the sideline. twice, a Tipton assistant coach asked if he felt well enough to return to the game. twice, Chad said he was good. He went back in, and Tipton huddled up. “Something’s wrong,” Chad told a teammate before lining up for the play. Suddenly, his legs turned soft.

“When he walked out the door to play football that day, it didn’t cross my mind that i wouldn’t see him come off that field,” Chad’s mother, Amy, says nearly eight months later. “it just didn’t.”

Read the full TIME cover story here

TIME NFL

Despite Scandals, The NFL Always Wins

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens
Wide receiver Steve Smith #89 of the Baltimore Ravens is pulled down by the face mask by free safety Mike Mitchell #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 11, 2014 in Baltimore. Patrick Smith—Getty Images

Ray Rice assaulted his fiancée. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is under fire. Football has a host of other problems. Still, TV ratings soared.

Thursday night was the true test. A nation was disgusted with the NFL. At best, the league’s leader, Roger Goodell, was wholly incompetent in his handling of the Ray Rice mess. At worst, he’s lying about the way the NFL conducted the Rice investigation. No matter what, the world had just seen one of the league’s most prominent players punch his fiancée on video. And Rice played for the Baltimore Ravens, the team featured on CBS’ first Thursday night NFL broadcast. The Ravens hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers.

And those Ravens, remember, had been tone-deaf to the horrors of domestic violence. Whether or not the team saw the tape of Rice’s assault before Monday — in a pre-game interview, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti told CBS that he hadn’t — the team knew, months ago, that Rice struck Janay Palmer during their February altercation. Most employees would have been fired after committing such an offense. Instead, the Ravens staged a press conference with Rice and Palmer, and tweeted out that Palmer– now Rice’s wife — “deeply regrets the role that she played the night of the incident.” After the NFL suspended Rice for a mere two games in July, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Rice a “heck of a guy.” A Ravens PR staffer went out of his way to sing Rice’s praises.

So if there was any night for the American public to shun the NFL, it was last night. Ravens-Steelers.

But now, the returns are in. And as always, the NFL wins.

And wins big. “THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL” ON CBS AND NFL NETWORK MORE THAN DOUBLES OPENING NIGHT RATINGS FROM A YEAR AGO, screamed a Friday press release. The twofold ratings increase of the Steelers-Ravens game, compared to the New York Jets-New England Patriots game on September 12, 2013, is impressive, though somewhat misleading. This year’s Thursday night game was shown on both CBS and the NFL Network, while Jets-Pats was only broadcast on the NFL Network. Double the channels, double the ratings.

What’s more salient: the game gave CBS its best Thursday prime-time numbers since May of 2006.

The NFL has failed leadership. The NFL has behavior problems. The NFL enjoys a federal tax-exemption it doesn’t deserve. The NFL milks the public out of money for stadiums. The NFL turned its back on concussions. It may have enabled painkiller abuse. The NFL supports a racist team nickname.

But the NFL is no political entity, no leader. The NFL is a beloved product. The NFL has passes and catches and tackles and gambling and fantasy leagues. The NFL spurs parties and beer-drinking and man caves.

Roger Goodell may get booted. More players will likely break the law. But these developments won’t affect the NFL one bit. Because even during one of the league’s worst hours, the votes kept rolling in.

They won’t stop.

TIME NFL

The Convicted Abuser Who’s Still Playing In The NFL

Carolina Panthers v Pittsburgh Steelers
Hardy looks on from the sideline during a preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on August 28, 2014 George Gojkovich—Getty Images

Greg Hardy was convicted of assaulting a woman. Neither the NFL or the Carolina Panthers have benched him

Ray Rice was caught on tape punching his future wife. He’s indefinitely suspended from the NFL. Greg Hardy, a Pro-Bowl defensive end for the Carolina Panthers, was arrested on May 13 for assaulting an ex-girlfriend. On the arrest warrant, a police officer made the following statement. The capital letters appeared in the document.

“I, the undersigned, find that there is probable cause to believe that on or about the date of the offense shown [May 13, 2014] and in the county named above [Mecklenburg County, North Carolina] the defendant named above [Hardy] unlawfully and willingly did assault [redacted], a female person, by GRABBING VICTIM AND THROWING TO THE FLOOR, THROWING INTO A BATHTUB, SLAMMING HER AGAINST A FUTON, AND STRANGLING HER. The defendant is a male person and was at least 18 years of age when the assault occurred.”

On the “complaint and motion for domestic violence protective order,” the accuser described the incident.

“On May 13, 2014, Greg Hardy attacked me in his apartment. Hardy picked me up and threw me into the tile tub area in his bathroom. I have bruises from head to toe, including my head, neck, back, shoulders arms, legs, elbow and feet. Hardy pulled me from the tub by my hair, screaming at me that he was going to kill me, break my arms and other threats that I completely believe. He drug me across the bathroom and out into the bedroom. Hardy choked me with both hands around my throat while I was lying on the floor. Hardy picked me up over his head and threw me onto a couch covered in assault rifles and/or shotguns. I landed on those weapons. Hardy bragged that all of those assault rifles were loaded. Landing on those weapons bruised [my] neck and back. Hardy screamed for his “administrative assistant” (Sammy Curtis) to come into the room and hold me down. Curtis came into the room, grabbed me from behind and held me down. Hardy and Curtis then took me into the living room area. I wasn’t nearly strong or fast enough to escape. I begged them to let me go & I wouldn’t tell anyone what he did. They took me out into the hall, pushed me down & went back inside his apartment. I crawled to the elevator and ran into CMPD (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department)

In court, the accuser testified: “He looked me in my eyes and he told me he was going to kill me. I was so scared I wanted to die. When he loosened his grip slightly, I said just,`Do it. Kill me.”

On June 15, a judge found Hardy guilty of assaulting a female and communicating threats. She sentenced him to 18 months probation; a 60-day jail sentence was suspended. Hardy appealed, and since he was convicted of a misdemeanor, under North Carolina law he’s entitled to a jury trial, which is set for Nov. 17. In court, Hardy and Curtis denied that Hardy assaulted the victim, or communicated threats.

The world hasn’t seen this incident on tape. Hardy played in Carolina’s first game. He didn’t practice on Wednesday for what the team said were “personal reasons” — he met with his attorney. But Hardy returned to practice Thursday and as of right now, he is slated to play on Sunday, as the Panthers host the Detroit Lions. Pressure is building on the team to change that and the Charlotte Observer called for Hardy’s suspension in an editorial.

On Wednesday night, hours after Hardy missed practice, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson received a humanitarian honor in Charlotte: The Echo Award Against Indifference.

TIME Boxing

Don’t Forget, You Can Also Boycott Floyd Mayweather

Floyd Mayweather Jr. Media Workout
Floyd Mayweather Jr. arrives for a workout at the Mayweather Boxing Club on September 2, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Mayweather Jr. will defend his WBC/WBA welterweight titles against Marcos Maidana on September 13 in Las Vegas. Eric Jamison—Getty Images

Convicted abuser set to make over $30 million from boxing match this weekend says NFL got it wrong on Ray Rice

Sadly, it took the Ray Rice video to expose another very troubling sports character to a larger audience. Over the years you might not have given much thought to Floyd Mayweather Jr., often called the “best-pound-for-pound fighter on the planet,” given that boxing is largely irrelevant.

A quick primer: He’s never lost a fight. He’s very rich. He has twice pleaded guilty to attacking women, and spent two months in jail for domestic battery in 2012. He’s been accused of battering women several other times. His ex-fiancee filed a civil suit against him last week, in which she accuses him of assaulting her.

Now Mayweather is defending the NFL’s original two-game suspension of Rice, who attacked fiancee Janay Palmer—now his wife—in February and was dropped by the Baltimore Ravens this week after video of the assault was made public. “I think there’s a lot worse things that go on in other people’s households, also,” Mayweather told a group of reporters Thursday. “It’s just not caught on video, if that’s safe to say.”

He also said he’s been falsely accused of domestic attacks.”Like I’ve said in the past, no bumps, no bruises, no nothing,” Mayweather said. “With O.J. and Nicole, you seen pictures. With Chris Brown and Rihanna, you seen pictures… You guys have yet to see any pictures of a battered woman, a woman who says she was kicked and beaten [by Mayweather]. So I just live my life and try to stay positive, and try to become a better person each and every day.”

In advance of Mayweather’s next fight, this Saturday, the Washington Post‘s Rick Maese penned an illuminating profile of the champion fighter. In discussing his criminal past, Mayweather actually mentions two civil rights icons:

“Malcolm X been to jail; Martin Luther King been to jail. The list goes on and on. You live and you learn. But I think the main thing, I think people should just learn from the mistakes that are made. And I’m not saying that when I went to jail it was a mistake. But things happen and you live and you learn.”

While Rice may never play in the NFL again, and fans are boycotting merchandise with his name on it, Mayweather isn’t doing too badly for himself. For Saturday’s fight, the boxer will likely net $30 million no matter what. Ticket sales, and pay-per-view purchases of $65 to $75, will bring him millions more.

“Whether you pay to see me win or pay to see me lose, I’m the smart one at the end of the day,” Mayweather told Maese, “because you pay me.”

Perhaps that’s a payment worth skipping.

TIME NFL

The NFL’s Epic Breach of Trust

Baltimore Ravens v Dallas Cowboys
Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens sits on the bench against the Dallas Cowboys in the first half of their preseason game at AT&T Stadium on August 16, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. Ronald Martinez—Getty Images

The Ray Rice case is a colossal mess. What did the NFL know, and when?

The NFL is drowning in disgrace. The league has faced heavy criticism on any number of issues over the past few years, but the bungling of the Ray Rice domestic violence incident, by both commissioner Roger Goodell and the Baltimore Ravens, is a new NFL low. Right now the actual games, given all these off-field antics, seem pretty beside the point.

Sure, the Ravens cut Rice, and Goodell suspended him indefinitely. But only when they had no other choice. After a new video surfaced Monday on TMZ.com — showing Rice clocking his then-fiancee out cold in an Atlantic City elevator — there was no conceivable circumstance in which Rice could take the field after his laughable two-game suspension was up. It’s hard enough to expunge Rice’s punch from your mind. His return would serve as an awful reminder, every time he touched the ball, of his now very public crime.

The NFL patted itself on the back in late July, when V.P. of labor policy Adolpho Birch tried to justify the two-game penalty to ESPN Radio’s Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic. “The discipline that was taken by the NFL is the only discipline that occurred with respect to Mr. Rice in this case,” Birch said. “Were he not an NFL player, I don’t know that he would have received punishment from any other source.” Since the courts only gave Rice a slap on the wrist — Rice was charged with a felony, but was able to enter a pretrial diversion program to avoid jail time — the NFL actually thought it was playing tough guy. Roger Goodell also said that he was “impressed” with Rice’s contrition.

“The way the NFL has responded is alarming,” says Seton Hall University law professor Jessica Miles, who specializes in domestic violence law. “Anyone who knows anything about domestic violence would not be surprised that the prosecution did not pursue the case. As an advocate of victim’s rights, I’m disappointed that it appears that the abuser got away with it. But I understand where the prosecutor is coming from.” If the victim does not press the case – Janay Palmer married Rice a day after his indictment — prosecutors must keep her right to autonomy in mind, says Miles. Also, losing such a trial could have devastating effect. “Abusive men could feel empowered ,” says Miles. “It could really hurt future victims.” With the video evidence, it doesn’t appear that Rice has much of a legal defense. “But as we all know, jury verdicts can sometimes surprise,” says Miles.

Rice’s contrition shouldn’t count for much either. “The very first thing abusers do is apologize,” says Miles. “It’s very, very typical. The NFL showed zero understanding of domestic violence. It’s like they didn’t even Google it.”

A few weeks ago, Goodell himself did admit that Rice’s two-game penalty was a mistake. It was especially embarrassing given that Cleveland’s Josh Gordon was suspended a year for smoking marijuana, which is legal in two states. Goodell created harsher punishments for future NFL offenders. So now, we play a game of who knew what, and when? The NFL says that it never saw the tape of Rice’s punch before today. But at least one respected NFL reporter says otherwise.

In July, SI’s Peter King wrote that the NFL had seen the tape, but on Monday clarified his claim to this: he trusted a source who assumed the NFL had viewed it. King’s admitted “lapse in reporting” aside, if the NFL hadn’t in fact seen the tape, why wouldn’t the League immediately refute the writing of one of the most widely-read NFL journalists in the country? If the NFL hadn’t seen any other video evidence except the tape released in February, just say so when Rice was first punished. Everyone knew the elevator tape was out there — casinos do tend to have them. Simple transparency always helps.

And no need to applaud the Ravens for finally cutting Rice: the team has been tone-deaf and foolish. Even if the team did not in fact see the new video before it went public, the Ravens and NFL officials knew the full well that the elevator scene was ugly. In May, the team hosted an ill-advised press conference with Rice and his wife in which Janay apologized for her “role in that night.” The Ravens conveniently tweeted that out.

After Rice’s two-game suspension, a Ravens PR official wrote a piece, posted on the official team website, explaining his fondness for Rice. At the start of training camp, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called Rice a “heck of a guy” and held up Rice’s penalty as a moral lesson for children. “He makes a mistake, alright,” Harbaugh said. “He’s gonna have to pay a consequence. It’s good for kids to understand that it works that way, and that’s how it works. That’s how it should be.”

People can backtrack all they want. The League’s popularity and profits can keep ballooning. But the Rice case drives something home: Don’t go trusting the NFL.

TIME tennis

A Little More Magic From Roger Federer

2014 US Open - Day 11
Roger Federer shakes hands with Gael Monfils of France after their men's singles quarterfinal at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 3, 2014. Federer defeated Monfils in five sets 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2. Julian Finney—Getty Images

The five-time U.S. Open champ fights from two sets down, and staves off two match points, to reach the tournament semifinals

The New York City crowd wanted this one badly. When Roger Federer hit a ball into the net, fans shut their eyes, as if witnessing a wreck. When he won a big point, they high-fived their friends like frat boys. Federer is aging, and his most sublime tennis is behind him. And this could be his last chance to win one more U.S. Open; it would be his first since his winning five straight championships, from 2004 through 2008.

These fans left Arthur Ashe Stadium enthralled. Federer came from two sets down, and staved off two match points in the fourth, to beat surging Frenchman Gael Monfils 4-6, 3-6, 6-4, 7-5, 6-2 on Thursday night at the U.S. Open. Monfils, wearing matching neon green shirts and sneakers, was enjoying the defining run of his career. He was two points away from his first U.S. Open semifinal. But he couldn’t close out Federer, donned in his black evening wear. Not that Monfils should rue it too long. Roger, it turns out, can still be Roger.

In the first two sets, the mishits weren’t typical Federer. He had 13 unforced errors in each of the first two sets, but settled down in the third, where he committed just a single unnecessary mistake. The fourth set produced the drama. Federer broke Monfils first, to go up 2-1. But after Monfils broke right back, he screamed like a madman before starting the next service game. Federer switched rackets, perhaps to stall Monfils’ fury. When Monfils held serve with an ace, he screamed some more.

Monfils had two match points at 5-4, with Federer on serve. “When guys wish you good luck before the match,” Federer says, “that’s when you hope it kicks in.”

After Federer fought off the match points, the stadium gave him an extended ovation. “I must say tonight was actually quite emotional for me,” Federer says. “I really thought the crowds were incredible. They definitely got me through the match.” In the next game, Monfils double faulted twice, giving Federer a break. Monfils is famous for losing focus; he was right on script. Federer then closed out the set; the crowd screamed some more.

In the fifth, Monfils botched a return, giving Federer a 2-0 lead. He slumped his shoulders; his body language said the match was over. Federer ended the deciding set in just 27 minutes. Monfils said he tried to keep his emotions in check. But the mental effort left him fatigued.

“Roger just jumped on me,” says Monfils. “He changes so many times. He starts with chipping very well. I think I handed it good. So then he sticks with longer points. It was 50-50, and then he tries to come to the net very often. It was a bit better for him. Then suddenly he starts to mix everything.

“You know, that’s why he’s the greatest player. Because he can do everything.”

A rematch of this year’s Wimbledon final — Federer-Djokovic — looks likely. Federer will face Marin Cilic, from Croatia, in one semi; Novak Djokovic will play Kei Nishikori, of Japan, in the other. CBS will broadcast its last men’s final on Monday. Since 1968, the network has broadcast the Open; ESPN takes everything over next year.

If Cilic-Nishikori is CBS’s last U.S. Open match, execs will wail. The New York fans will wail even louder.

They want Roger.

TIME tennis

American Weakness Is Glaring at the U.S Open

A general view of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Day Eight of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 1, 2014 in the Queens.
A general view of Arthur Ashe Stadium on Day Eight of the 2014 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Sept. 1, 2014 in the Queens. Julian Finney—Getty Images

For the second straight year — and just second time in history — no American men's player made the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Patrick McEnroe, America's chief talent developer, is out. What now?

Thursday night’s Roger Federer-Gael Monfils match, in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open, should be a beauty. Federer, 33, is trying to give the New York crowd one final — maybe — ride to a title. He’s the sentimental favorite. Monfils, a thrilling player, is on the verge of delivering on his promise, and truly contending for a Grand Slam. Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori are already through to the semis. Marin Cilic and Tomas Berdych are fighting for another spot Thursday afternoon. There’s plenty of talent, plenty of reason to watch.

And not an American in the bunch.

American tennis, particularly on the men’s side, has been in decline for quite some time. But right now, it’s at a low point. Only twice in the 134-year history of the U.S. Open has an American man failed to make the fourth round — this year, and last year. The last American man to win a Grand Slam title was Andy Roddick, back in 2003.

The American women are more encouraging. Serena Williams, 32, is still on top, and she has cruised into this year’s Open semis. And while she was the only American woman to reach the fourth round, a stable of younger players offer promise. For example, 15-year-old CiCi Bellis became the youngest player to win an Open match since 1996.

Still, the overall lack of results are glaring. And someone had to pay. Patrick McEnroe, head of the United States Tennis Association’s player development program, announced on Sept. 3 he was resigning from the post. McEnroe is an affable TV commentator, but his media commitments were a sore spot. How can someone be fully dedicated to developing players while holding down such a high-profile second job? The USTA, a non-profit organization, was reportedly paying McEnroe top-dollar: Nearly $875,000 in 2012, according to financial documents, and more than $1 million for each of the prior two years.

The bottom-line: McEnroe wasn’t delivering on the investment. He lives in the New York, while the USTA’s main training center is in Florida. The USTA is building a new $60 million facility in the Orlando area, and even McEnroe admits that his replacement should be based in central Florida.

Whoever gets the gig faces a harrowing challenge. Young athletes see so many Americans thriving in other sports. So why pick up a racquet? “Success breeds success,” says former U.S. pro Justin Gimelstob, a board member of the ATP tour. “Doubt breeds doubt.” Gimelstob says he’s in no position to second-guess McEnroe. “I don’t believe that systems create stars,” says Gimelstob. “Star players are unique. We can’t be looking for the USTA to create a U.S. Open champ. But a system can nurture talent.”

Gimelstob, naturally, is confident. “It will turn around,” he says. “We have the resources. The tennis landscape has changed. More people are playing around the world — it’s gotten so much more competitive. We had been on top for so long. Now we just have to fight five times as hard to get it back.”

 

 

 

TIME NFL

Dallas Cowboys Sign Michael Sam, Save NFL From Stupidity

Michael Sam
Former Missouri player Michael Sam, left, waves to fans has he and former teammate E.J. Gaines, right, are introduced during the first quarter of the South Dakota State-Missouri NCAA college football game on Aug. 30, 2014, in Columbia, Mo. L.G. Patterson—AP

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, never afraid of attention, signs the NFL's first openly gay player to practice squad. The team needs him

The whole thing was starting to stink. Michael Sam, after performing well during the preseason, really wasn’t good enough to earn a spot on any NFL roster? Not even as a practice player?

Leave it the one NFL owner who doesn’t mind a media “distraction” — sarcastic air quotes very intentional — to step up and sign Sam, the NFL’s first openly gay player. According to multiple reports, Sam will be added to the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, as long as he passes a physical. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones relishes the media attention that many teams fear will accompany Sam into the locker room. This is a guy who wanted to draft lighting rod Johnny Manziel, before his son talked him out of it. He told ESPN The Magazine writer Don Van Natta that he still regrets passing on Johnny Football. He built a ridiculously lavish stadium. He signed T.O.

Even better, Sam is no carnival barker; he’s the anti-T.O. This isn’t a publicity stunt. Sam makes football sense for the Cowboys, who are weak at defensive line. Though he’s starting on the practice squad, don’t be shocked to see Sam get a promotion.

Sam’s release from the St. Louis Rams, who drafted the University of Missouri star in the seventh round, was never going to be a shocker. That team had well-documented depth at defensive line. But after an impressive preseason in which he recorded three sacks, it seemed likely that some NFL team would pick him up, at least for their practice squad. The odds looked very, very favorable.

This year, 41 players, including Sam, were selected by NFL teams in the seventh and final round of the NFL draft. As of early Tuesday afternoon, 80% of them were slated to start the season on an NFL roster. Twenty-one players made the 53-man active roster, six more made practice squads, and six were placed on injured reserve/physically unable to perform lists.

What’s more, Adam Schefter of ESPN noted the following:

Three other defensive ends were picked in the seventh round. One, Ben Gardner from Stanford, is on Dallas’ injured list. The other two did not come from major football schools. Terrence Fede, of Marist College, and Shelby Harris of Illinois State, made the active rosters of the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders, respectively. Sam was the SEC co-defensive player of the year at the University of Missouri; Fede and Harris are more physically imposing than Sam (Fede is 6’4″, 282 pounds, Harris is 6’2″, 288 pounds, Sam is 6’2″, 261 pounds).

It’s easy to think that seventh rounders are long-shots to make NFL rosters. But no, not this year: over half the players made the active team, and only 20% of them, including Sam, were unemployed as of early this afternoon. So why was Sam among the jobless, despite his strong pre-season performance? Despite being a pass-rush specialist in a pass-happy league that puts a premium on quarterback pressure? Bleacher Report NFL writer Mike Freeman surveyed some front office executive, and his findings were revealing:

In interviews with a number of team officials, I can’t find one who will actually say to me, “He can’t play.” They all point to the media and say he’s too big a distraction.

One general manager told me, “Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention.”

Ah, the “distraction” issue. What an awful crutch. Sure, the media hasn’t always behaved gracefully here — look no further than ESPN’s sloppy reporting about Sam’s showering habits. (Not that the shower issue isn’t totally irrelevant. If Sam was refusing to shower with his teammates because he felt like the locker room was homophobic, that is certainly important and newsworthy. The problem was that ESPN’s report was so thinly sourced that the information the reporter shared — an unnamed player speculating that Sam was waiting to take a shower so teammates weren’t uncomfortable — wasn’t worth airing.)

But that report aside, the Rams seemed to survive the preseason intact, despite the Sam “distraction.” If NFL teams were indeed passing on Sam for their practice squads for non-football reasons — sure seemed that way — what an ugly move. At best, the “distraction” excuse is cowardly. What, an NFL team can’t handle a few extra cameras in the locker room because of Sam, cameras that would surely thin out once the season began and Sam went about his business? It’s not like he’s extending an open invitation for the media horde to ask him questions. People just happen to be interested in him. Sam was going to be denied an opportunity for reasons beyond his control. The only decision he made to “bring on” this attention was a very admirable one: being open about his sexuality, and thus serving as a role model for others.

At worst, the media is just a scapegoat. Pure bigotry was at play.

For now, though, these issues can be cast in the background. Jerry Jones bailed the NFL out, temporarily at least. Sam will get another shot.

A well-deserved one.

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