There'll always be a place for athletes who are famous for more than their on-field talents. Tim Tebow, for instance, learned this in this year's distressing Super Bowl ad in which he made fun of his status as an unsigned football star. Tebow had seen diminishing returns despite huge hype for being outspoken about his faith (this midcareer interview in which Robin Roberts gushes over him is emblematic) and was unable to get signed for his chosen position as a quarterback. But he'll always be famous-ish.
This is a lesson, too, that Michael Sam may soon be learning as his nascent pro football career has hit a roadblock. Cut from the St. Louis Rams' roster during practice squad, the man who would have been the first openly gay NFL player has gotten the first of what will likely be many public offers in the celebrity/reality space, as he was invited to appear on WWE's "Monday Night Raw" and "tell his side of the story."
Sam has courted, so far, far less publicity than Tebow had. But there's no denying that Sam's status is far beyond that of a garden-variety SEC defensive player of the year, and invites speculation and interest from people who are not sports fans. Anecdotally, just about every gay man and most progressive-minded straight people I know have a strong opinion about why Sam ought to remain on the St. Louis Rams or get picked up by another team, rooted in a sudden ability to theorize about what is best for football teams.
Sam may or may not deserve to play professional football based on his performance in the early going with the Rams -- that's far beyond my ken. But his status as a celebrity is a distraction, if not for the Rams organization itself, then for the media. It's a welcome one. As an NFL player, Sam would do either well or poorly or, more likely, adequately, fade into the warp and weft of a team, as Jason Collins did on the Brooklyn Nets. How many defensive ends do Americans know by name? But as an emblem of untapped potential, Sam remains a figure about whom speculation could seemingly continue forever, just as this time last year news stories were made of Tebow's potential move to a foreign football league.
If Sam is eventually to play professional football, as he may be with the Dallas Cowboys, who are reportedly "doing research and due diligence" on the player, his status as a professional celebrity will evaporate; it only exists right now to fill the vacuum of how little we know about him. He'd be judged on concrete achievements rather than nebulous ideas and airy rhetoric -- a gradual normalization of gay people in yet another field of endeavor that all of us should root for. Without a contract, though, Sam will be famous as a symbol of potential achievement that didn't come together. He may not do the WWE, but contract or no, Sam will be with us as a public figure for years to come. One way or another, we may see him during the Super Bowl.