Last Saturday the St. Louis Rams made American history by selecting the first openly gay player in the National Football League's annual draft. Michael Sam, a defensive end from the University of Missouri, was selected by the Rams in the seventh round. Today, as documented by Talking Points Memo, many conservative bloggers and commentators on Fox News complained that Sam has been warmly received by the media than Tim Tebow, a former quarterback for the Denver Broncos. The claim, according to these conservative commentators, is that Tebow was chided for his Christian beliefs while Sam has been welcomed for his homosexuality.
So how do Sam and Tebow compare?
Both Sam and Tebow were accomplished college athletes when they started their professional careers.
Tebow won the Heisman Trophy in 2007 and helped the Florida Gators win two national championships as quarterback of the team. At the end of his career Tebow was the South Eastern Conference's (SEC) all time leader in career passing efficiency, completion percentage, passign touchdown to interception ratio, rushing yards by a quarterback, and rushing touchdowns.
Michael Sam did not have the records of Tim Tebow, but he was the SEC's defensive player of the year in 2013 after recording 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. For his career Sam had 123 tackles, 36 tackles, 21 sacks, six forced fumbles, and two intercepted passes. Those numbers are impressive for any college defensive end, and especially noteworthy for a defensive end playing in what is widely regarded as the best conference in college football.
Both Sam and Tebow started facing questions about the transition to professional football when they declared for the draft.
Tebow is 6'3" tall and weighs 236 pounds, which is an almost ideal height for a quarterback. Tebow also ran the 40 yard dash in 4.72 seconds, which is more than adequate for a quarterback. The problem for Tebow was his throwing mechanics which caused a lack of velocity on his throws as well as a lack of accuracy. Running quarterbacks can do very well in college, but an NFL quarterback must throw to succeed. When he came out for the NFL Draft some experts questioned if Tebow should even be drafted as a quarterback, with many analysts suggesting a move to tight end or full back.
Sam is 6'2" tall and weights 261 pounds. The height/weight is adequate for an outside linebacker but a bit undersized for a defensive end. At the NFL Combine Sam ran the 40 yard dash in 4.91 seconds and was only able to bench press 225 pounds 17 times, which were both considered below average for a defensive end/linebacker of his size.
Tebow proudly broadcast his Christian faith throughout his playing career. Tebow frequently wrote Biblical citations on the black patches he put underneath his eyes. These references would later generate millions of Google searches. After touchdowns Tebow would kneel down in his own, unique praying position which would later become known as "Tebowing." Tebow would frequently credit God for his victories.
Sam's sexual orientation was well known to his University of Missouri teammates during his college career, but amazingly Sam's sexual orientation would not become public knowledge until he willingly disclosed it in an interview with ESPN before the NFL Combine. There has been other gay NFL players before Sam, but none before him felt comfortable publicly declaring there homosexuality given the culture of the times.
So how were the two men received?
Even after being projected as a third round pick, at best, by many experts; Tim Tebow was drafted in the first round (25th overall) by the Denver Broncos in 2010. After spending two seasons with the Broncos as a backup quarterback and struggling with his passing accuracy Tebow was traded to the New York Jets for a fourth and sixth round draft pick in 2012. After throwing only eight passes with the Jets Tebow was released by the Jets. Tebow then signed a two-year contract with the New Englad Patriots on June 10, 2013. After struggling to complete passes without getting intercepted in that preseason Tebow was cut by the Patriots on August 31, 2013.
So in summary the experts predicted that Tebow could not throw a quarterback like he needed to in the NFL. Despite this fact Tebow was drafted very highly as a quarterback. Then, Tebow would spend the next three years with three different proving that the experts were right, and that he could not throw a football like he needed to in the NFL.
As a first round draft choice Tebow was given a five year contract worth $33 million. He was then given opportunties with two other teams. Along the way Tebow had a loyal fan following, and garnered perhaps more media attention than any backup quarterback in the history of the NFL. Tebow received endorsement deals with Nike, Jockey International, FRS Health Energy and TiVo. Wherever he went, Tebow's name helped drive merchandise sales up. After retiring from professional football, Tebow signed a a contract with ESPN as a college football analyst.
As far as media treatment, some analysts did question whether the spotlight that followed Tebow distracted from the a team's focus on winning. No one went as far as to criticize Tebow's faith, but there were serious questions about Tebow's ability to play quarterback.
Compare Tebow's treatment, in the early going at least, with that of Sam.
Unlike Tebow, Sam was drafted in the seventh round (249th overall) by the St. Louis Rams. Seventh round draft choices typically sign a contract for the league minimum ($285,000 per year over 3 years). There were questions about Sam's 40 time, but there were also questions about the 2012 SEC defensive player Jarvis Jones, who also ran a 4.91 before the draft. Jones was drafted in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft, even given his slow 40 time, because of his production on the field.
After Sam was drafted Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones tweeted "OMG" and "horrible" in response to the broadcast of Sam kissing his boyfriend on national television. Jones was subsequently fined and suspended by his team for the comments. Former NFL player Derek Ward tweeted, "I'm sorry but that Michael Sam is no bueno for doing that on national tv." The response to Jones and Ward has generally been negative, but there certainly has never been any criticism of a player kissing his girlfriend on television under ths same circumstances.
Sales of Michael Sam's jersey are reportedly very high following the draft. Sam trails only Johnny Manziel, a quarterback drafted by the Cleveland Browns, in jersey sales in the days following the draft.
Like Tebow, Sam will probably have some endorsement deals available to him, should he pursue them, in the coming months. Like Tebow, Sam will likely receive more media attention than any other backup defensive end in the NFL.
So the two men have some similarities when it comes to their reception, but overall it is hard to argue that Tebow received a harsher treatment than Sam, particularly when one looks at the draft placement of the two men.