Tersely ending total silence from league headquarters on a hot topic, NFL senior vice president of communications Greg Aiello told The Sports Xchange Thursday that “Jeff Fisher is correct” in the coach’s vehement denial of a deal between the league and Rams involving the drafting of openly gay Michael Sam in 2014.
That was the total reaction to a request by TSX for a response to the story, which to that point, at least, was not otherwise even mentioned on any media outlet that is an extension of the NFL, although it was a top news story elsewhere.
Sports Xchange NFL writer Howard Balzer stands by the story published Wednesday in which he cited several sources that said the league agreed to spare the Rams from appearing on HBO training camp docuseries “Hard Knocks” that year if they drafted Sam, the Missouri defensive end, in the seventh round.
During his final year in college, Sam announced that he was gay. He then became the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL. He said Thursday via Twitter “I’m not surprised at all,” sharing a link to Balzer’s story.
Fisher, appearing on ESPN Radio, said: “We had three seventh-round picks. We drafted Michael, who was the best player on the board. And who in their right mind would think that you’d give up a draft choice to avoid doing something like that — something that I think would benefit the organization.”
Asked if the Rams had a deal with the NFL, Fisher said “Absolutely not.”
At the time, the Rams were hailed for being progressive by drafting the first openly gay player in the National Football League.
From Balzer: Shortly after his college career at Missouri ended, Sam came out publicly, acknowledging he is gay. The Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Sam was considered a fifth-round pick at best. However, as the draft proceeded on the final day, it appeared he might not be drafted at all.
It is believed the NFL didn’t want to face questions about that eventuality, and the Rams were viewed as the ideal spot because of St. Louis’ proximity to the Missouri campus in Columbia, 90 miles away, and Fisher’s ability to deal with whatever distractions there might be.
So it was that the Rams saved the day, selecting Sam with the 249th pick of a 256-player draft. Now, the Rams are jumping back into the spotlight by making a quick agreement to participate in “Hard Knocks” this year.
The Rams moved to Los Angeles in January, and as the annual owners meeting closed Wednesday, in one of the earliest announcements ever, the NFL revealed that the Rams will be the featured team this summer on the HBO show.
It is no surprise the league wants to showcase the return to a market that was without a team since 1994. What is somewhat odd, but understandable in light of the revelation, is that the Rams are now embracing the intrusion of HBO’s cameras in a year in which the distractions and logistics of the move will be a challenge for the organization, coaches and players. Especially since Fisher consistently opposed having his team on the show.
In fact, in 2014, about two weeks after the draft and the selection of Sam, Fisher was asked about the possibility of the league picking the Rams for the TV show. If no team volunteers to be a part of “Hard Knocks,” the league can pick a team that hasn’t been on the show for 10 years, doesn’t have a new head coach and hasn’t made the playoffs for two years. The Rams qualified on all counts.
Fisher said, “We are eligible, but I think it’s highly unlikely they’d ask us to do it. I think this organization has a right to go through training camp with some normalcy.”
Of course, that “normalcy” included a record number of press conferences for a seventh-round draft pick, plus having an ESPN report late in training camp in which teammates were asked about their shower habits and those of Sam. By a female reporter, Josina Anderson.
There is unlikely to be much “normalcy” this offseason, training camp and regular season, too.
In a press release announcing the decision, Fisher said, “This is an exciting time for our franchise. Hard Knocks will be an outstanding way to bring our fans into our training camp and preseason, and give a glimpse of the hard work and dedication of our players, coaches and staff as we prepare for the 2016 season.”
Of course, none of those players will be Sam, who was waived in the cut-down to 53 players in 2014, was briefly on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad that season, then left the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League in the summer of 2015 without playing in a game.
One player still with the Rams is defensive end Ethan Westbrooks, who earned a roster spot as an undrafted free agent the same year as Sam. His story is an interesting postscript to the Sam saga. The Rams were high on Westbrooks, and he apparently was the team’s target for one of its two late seventh-round picks. However, center Demetrius Rhaney was selected one spot after Sam, as it would have been unseemly to use that spot on Westbrooks, who plays the same position as Sam.
There is no direct evidence that the teams picking after the Rams were urged (told?) not to draft Westbrooks, but would anyone be surprised if that was the case as a thank-you to the Rams for taking everyone off the hook?
After all, Westbrooks received an unusually large $20,000 signing bonus in addition to having $30,000 of his first-year salary guaranteed. In the world of the NFL, that is not a large sum of money. What is notable is that the $50,000 total guarantee was more than the slotted signing bonus/guaranteed money of $45,896 that all of the seventh-round compensatory picks received, including Sam.
In addition, to steer attention away from Westbrooks as it related to any obvious competition initially with Sam, the Rams announced when signing him that the lanky, 267-pound player was a defensive tackle.