Too Gay to Play? A Quantitative Analysis of Michael Sam’s Pre-Season Performance

The following is a guest post by Dr. Thomas Smith of the Goizueta Business School, Emory University.

Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL, was cut by the St. Louis Rams this past weekend. Several analysts, including Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report, identified that cutting a player with performance stats similar to those of Sam is “almost unprecedented… and basically unheard of .” (Freeman’s article)  We know Sam had 11 combined tackles and 3 sacks, but are these the only way to measure Sam’s performance?  Let’s look at the stats of the defensive ends that made the cut this past weekend:

Table 1: Statistics of DEs Making the 53-Man Roster (2014 Pre-Season)

Table1 Source: www.NFL.com; www.espn.go.com (players on IR are not included in this table)

Table 2: Statistics of Michael Sam

Table2

Source: www.NFL.comwww.espn.go.com 

According to statistics, the DEs that made the cut had an average of 8 combined tackles and a little less than 1 sack. Sam’s stats better these marks by quite a bit. If these are the only statistics that matter, then the Rams (and most every other team) are missing out. However, if other performance metrics are considered – say those that are captured in the annual NFL Combine, then Sam was a little behind the ball. Sam is 0.14 seconds slower in the 40 yard dash, nearly 0.50 seconds slower in the 3-Cone drill, has a lower vertical leap, smaller broad jump and has a little less upper body strength than his counterparts.

But who is to say which statistic is the ‘silver bullet’, so to speak? If I look at the 40-yard dash and 3-cone performance then Jackson Jeffcoat (4.63 and 6.97) is the standout performer – yet didn’t make the Seahawks. Why? The Seahawks do not need him on defense – they are amazing without him.  Is it possible that Sam didn’t make the Rams because they didn’t need him – they were covered at DE? Absolutely.

Is it unprecedented that a player with Sam’s statistics on tackles and sacks gets left off a team (including the practice squad)? Looking back over the past four seasons (2010 – 2013) it appears that Mr. Freeman is on to something.  Looking at only the defensive ends with combined tackles within 1 and/or sacks within 1 of Michael Sam’s 2014 pre-season performance you see the following:

Table 3: DEs with Pre-Season Statistics Similar to Michael Sam (2010-2013)

Table 3

Source: www.NFL.com

So, Freeman knows his material. In the last four years, players with tackles and sacks similar to Michael Sam end up on a team (or practice squad in the case of Matt Broha). But, does this mean that the NFL is homophobic? No doubt people in the NFL are. However, this doesn’t prove that he’s not on the Rams because the Rams are homophobic. Several of the players listed above were picked up as free agents – they didn’t all play for the team that drafted them. And, at the moment, rumors are swirling that the Cowboys are interested in Sam for their practice squad (Note: he has since been signed by the Cowboys).

What does this mean? There is more than one statistic out there – we have seen plenty of players with better (and worse) statistics (all statistics) relative to Sam both make the NFL and get cut.

Thomas More Smith, Emory University, 2014.