THE BLOG

No LGB in Team

15/09/2014 15:20 BST | Updated 12/11/2014 10:59 GMT

For a moment it looked as though Michael Sam would be deemed surplus to requirements, not just by the St. Louis Rams, but by the entire NFL, before the Dallas Cowboys (eventually) rescued the sport from ignominy. During the waivers there was an undeniable air of reluctance from clubs to pick him up after all 31 rejected the chance to sign him, leaving him a free agent. This was in spite of his defensive capabilities (which many felt clubs like the Atlanta Falcons could have potentially benefited from) and his market value (his jersey was, at one stage, the second highest selling rookie shirt on NFLShop.com).

Judging by the favourable recruitment rates of similar players, to suggest an element of homophobia wasn't at play here would be at best blissfully ignorant, at worst knowingly negligent. Although Sam's omission may have been the result of an endemic culture of bigotry in the sport, the general line taken by figures from within the game is that no club wanted the excessive media attention, with last week's infamous ESPN discussion about his showering habits and planned fundamentalist Christian protests at the Cowboy's stadium representing the nadir.

More than anything, this feels like an excuse. If Sam was the same calibre as J.J. Watt, now the highest paid defensive player in the NFL, clubs wouldn't think twice about the intense media coverage. Unfortunately for Sam he's not at that level and therefore, despite his talent, easily replaceable.

In individual sports the rate at which players are 'coming out' is increasing, though still disproportionately low - 7 out of 2,500 Olympians at Sochi 2014 and 23 out of 10,000 at London 2012 is hardly representative. Ignoring the importance of natural ability and social class, individual sports are arguably the most meritocratic in the sense that a sportsperson is directly responsible for their own success. Unlike Michael Sam, if Tom Daley wants to succeed at diving only he can make that happen, only his competitors can stop him. 'Coming out' will still have been difficult but he wouldn't have had to worry about what managers, team mates, agents and club owners thought about it, he need only concentrate on his training and performances.

If the NFL's Michael Sam saga is anything to go by, let's just hope the first gay footballer is more World Cup prodigy James Rodriguez than Yorkshire running-man James Milner. This isn't a slant on the City stalwart; if anything it's a compliment to how his greatest strengths - work rate, versatility and awareness of the game - make him the archetypal 'team player' (in spite of his performance on Tuesday).

It's hard to imagine a scenario though where he'd be deemed indispensable in the same way it's hard to get your head around the fact that Real Madrid saw El Nuevo Pibe as such necessity they were prepared to lay out €80 million for him. If Milner attracted the same media circus as did Sam, you'd have to wonder how it would impact his career (disclaimer: in no way am I insinuating Milner is gay).

At the top level, every facet of a footballer's being is scrutinised in Britain, their sartorial nous and pastime choices are analysed with the same vigour as their eye for a pass and composure in front of goal. Though a necessary and undeniably positive step for the game, at times the search for football's first 'out' player can feel like a witch hunt and when he does feel confident enough to 'come out' if he isn't a household name already, you can be sure he will be when the press, sponsors and Paddy Power get hold of him.

The inevitable cascade of adulation he'll receive will be both deserved and proportionate, no matter how sensationalist it gets. But to avoid alienating the player from his team, jeopardising his performances and endangering his career the line will have to be drawn somewhere.

Despite what Pepsi adverts and FIFA box covers will have you believe, football remains a team sport and if the greatest British manager, Ferguson, was happy to sell fan favourite, Beckham, off the back of the disproportionate media attention he attracted (amongst other things, of course) it doesn't bode well for the first gay footballer.

Media attention hasn't stopped players like Balotelli and Suarez making moves, but these players are exceptional talents. The first 'out' player will attract a similar circus (albeit for infinitely more admirable reasons), so he'd (we'd) better pray he's more Bale than Barton. Because if football's still as homophobic as evidence suggests it is, if he'll will be subjected to an intense media spotlight of Beckham proportions and if other players offer a quieter alternative, then clubs will think twice before signing him.