It’s been almost two years since the St. Louis Rams selected defensive end Michael Sam in the seventh round of the 2014 draft. At the time, the Rams were hailed for being progressive and drafting the first openly gay player in the National Football League. It turns out, according to multiple sources, that the league agreed not to ask the Rams to appear that year on HBO’s yearly summer series, HARD KNOCKS, if they drafted Sam.
Shortly after his college career at Missouri ended, Sam came put publicly, acknowledging he is gay. The SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Sam was considered a fifth-round pick at best. But, 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 head coach Jeff 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, they have returned the favor.
Two years later, the Rams are now in Los Angeles, and as the annual league meeting closed Wednesday, in one of the earliest announcements ever, the NFL revealed that the Rams will be the featured team this summer on HARD KNOCKS.
It’s no surprise the league wants to showcase the return to a market that has been without a team since 1994. What’s 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 Rams head coach Jeff Fisher has consistently been opposed to 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, or doesn’t have a new head coach, or 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 woman reporter, Josina Anderson.
And, as if there will be any “normalcy” this offseason, training camp and regular season. 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 cutdown to 53 players in 2014, was briefly on the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad that season, and 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 was apparently the team’s target for one of their two late seventh-round picks. However, center Demetrius Rhaney was selected one spot after Sam, as it would have been unseemly to take Westbrooks there.
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’s not a large sum of money. What’s 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.