By Sean Gregory
September 3, 2014

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:

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.

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com.

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