NBC's Luke Russert : NFL Teams Slow to Sign Michael Sam After Release ‘Because He's Gay'

Filling in for Alex Wagner on her MSNBC show Wednesday, Luke Russert had a segment on NFL player and defensive end Michael Sam, who was signed earlier in the day to the Dallas Cowboys after being released by the St. Louis Rams on Saturday. Russert opined that the reason there was a delay before Sam was signed by another team was not because of any media “distractions" or that he was not a good enough player, but it was “probably because he’s gay.”

In the first portion of the over five-minute-long segment, Russert cited reports from anonymous NFL general managers to two sports media outlets that teams wanted to sign Sam, but “fear[ed] the media attention” and “the circus coming to town” in additional media. [See video below]

Russert slammed the NFL for Sam not being able to find a new team until it had been four days since he was cut, but allowed players with serious criminal records to play. He mentioned Michael Vick and Ray Lewis as two players who were allowed to continue playing after being convicted of dog-fighting and obstruction of justice, respectively.

It was then that Russert made his main point: 

So, let’s call a spade a spade: The reason Michael Sam isn't on any active rosters isn't because he can’t play and isn’t because of the media circus, the reason why there is a slowness to signing him to a practice squad is probably because he's gay. 

After welcoming in Time senior writer Sean Gregory, the two continued to beat on the league and NFL teams for passing on Sam. Gregory said that “without question, the whole situation started to stink a little bit come yesterday afternoon [Tuesday] when Michael Sam didn’t have a spot on a practice squad.”

Following that, Russert mockingly went after first-round-pick Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel (which strangely included going after his “heterosexuality”): 

I think one individual who brought a bigger circus to town was Johnny Manziel and his heterosexuality of being in Vegas with tons of women around him. Seemingly being at every party, being linked to super models, being linked to celebrities. If there was more chatter during the lead-up to training camp in the NFL off-season, even during camp, it seemed to be much more around Johnny Manziel than it was Michael Sam. 

The two leveled even more criticisms for the remainder of the segment, with Gregory bashing teams for having “a kind of cowardly excuse” for not signing Sam out of the fear of additional media attention week-after-week and the league for being “somewhat militaristic” and exhibiting a “very tough guy culture, very old-fashioned.” 

Meanwhile, Russert prodded the NFL “to be on the right side of history” and observed: “Who would have thought Jerry Jones is the leader to get on the right side of history?” Russert was not the first personality on even NBC to utter the "right side of history" line as Today co-host Matt Lauer made that point when speaking with NBC sportscaster Bob Costas in May.

What made the segment so humorous was a tweet that Russert read to conclude the segment from one of Sam’s former teammates with the Rams, Chris Long. Long criticized ESPN last week after it aired a story about Sam’s showering habits by tweeting that “[e]veryone but you is over it” in reference to obsessing over Sam’s status as the first openly-gay NFL player to be drafted. 

In citing Long’s brief tweet from August 26, Russert perfectly proved Long’s point. The media’s obsession with Michael Sam will continue well into the future with broadcast network news shows, cable news outlets, ESPN, and newspapers devoting full coverage to Sam’s every move.


The complete transcript from the segment that aired on MSNBC’s Now with Alex Wagner on September 3 is transcribed below.

MSNBC’s Now with Alex Wagner

September 3, 2014

4:50 p.m. Eastern

LUKE RUSSERT: A little bit of sports now and society. The Dallas Cowboys have signed Michael Sam to the practice squad. He’s the first openly gay athlete to be drafted in the NFL and was let go by the St. Louis Rams on Saturday after tallying three sacks in the preseason. 

DALLAS COWBOYS HEAD COACH JASON GARRETT: We're bringing a player in who we want to see on the practice field. We got nothing but good reports about him from our people and from people in St. Louis and we just want to give him a chance to come in and see if he can help our football team. 

RUSSERT: But with a full roster already in place, Sam is unlikely to play in the Cowboys Sunday opener and chances of him being the first openly gay athlete to play in the NFL, they are becoming thinner. So why are teams weary of Sam? It turns out that it has nothing to do with Michael Sam’s abilities as a football player and everything to do with the quote “distractions,” as one anonymous general manager told the Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman. Quote, “Teams want to sign Michael Sam but fear the media attention.” Others, according to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, fear “the circus coming to town.” This, keep in mind, is all coming from a league that has signed drug addicts, drunk drivers, and alleged rapists to their squads. Michael Vick was convicted of running a highly-publicized dogfighting ring. If there ever was a media circus, that was it, and yet, he still got signed. Ray Lewis was indicted for murder, later acquitted of that but convicted of obstruction of justice, yet he was named Super Bowl MVP the next year. So, let’s call a spade a spade: The reason Michael Sam isn't on any active rosters isn't because he can’t play and isn’t because of the media circus, the reason why there is a slowness to signing him to a practice squad is probably because he's gay. 

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: On the Squad?: Today: Michael Sam Signs to Dallas Cowboys Practice Squad]

Joining me now is senior writer for Time, Shawn Gregory and I look at this, Shawn, is, if you look at the NFL, there are 300 players who are practice squad players, every team gets ten of them. You can make an argument that perhaps Michael Sam he was too slow to make an active roster, that the St. Louis Rams didn't have a need for him because they had a lot of d-linemen or other teams – they didn't have a scheme that could fit him, fine. You cannot say that Michael Sam is not one of the 300 best practice squad players around in the country, especially because he was MVP of the toughest conference in football for one of his years at Missouri. 

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: On the Squad?: Michael Sam Joins Cowboys Practice Squad]

SEAN GREGORY: Yeah, without question, the whole situation started to stink a little bit come yesterday afternoon when Michael Sam didn't have a spot on a practice squad. Agreed that, you know, there was no shock when he got cut from the Rams, but after three sacks in the preseason, Adam Schefter from ESPN tweeted this very telling stat, 10 – 12 NFL players had at least two and a half sacks in the preseason, Michael Sam included. 10 are on rosters, one was on a practice squad, and only one was out of work as of noon or so yesterday – Michael Sam.

RUSSERT: And you had great stats in your piece, “This year 41 players, including Sam, were selected by NFL teams in the final and seventh round of NFL Draft. As of early Tuesday afternoon, 80 percent of them were slated to start the season on an NFL roster.” We hear this talk about distractions, the circus is coming to town. Ah, I think one individual who brought a bigger circus to town was Johnny Manziel and his heterosexuality of being in Vegas with tons of women around him. Seemingly being at every party, being linked to super models, being linked to celebrities. If there was more chatter during the lead-up to training camp in the NFL off-season, even during camp, it seemed to be much more around Johnny Manziel than it was Michael Sam. 

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: On the Squad?: Time: 80% of NFL 7th Round Draft Picks on Rosters]

GREGORY: Yeah, the distraction thing is such a crutch at this point. You know, okay, so, a few extra cameras are going to come into NFL locker rooms at the beginning of the season, but once the season gets going, Michael Sam goes about his business, you know, the story is kind of fades and even in training camp, he wasn't a distraction for the Rams. Everything was fine, the Rams are ready to make the season. So, at best, that's a kind of cowardly excuse. Notice you weren't hearing he was good enough to be on a practice squad and at worst, there maybe something more going on, some sort of bigotry or something like that. 

RUSSERT: Ain’t this a difficult situation for the NFL? It’s obviously difficult for all sports leagues and they’re still trying to figure out how to embrace this, the first gay athlete coming out, but in this day and age, where we are, to have that clutch, just seems so short sided. I mean, especially where society is headed. You can understand the hesitancy at the beginning, but at the end of the day, don't you want to be on right side of history if you’re the NFL? Who would have thought Jerry Jones is the leader to get on the right side of history?

[ON-SCREEN HEADLINE: On the Squad?: Michael Sam Was First Openly Gay Player Drafted in NFL]

GREGORY: Right, but Jerry Jones, love – quote – loves the media attention. Yeah, I mean, we've seen the NFL move a little slowly, you know, with marijuana laws, for example, that their punishments are very, very strict for stuff that's legal in a few states now. You know, the NFL culture, it’s very tough guy culture, very old fashioned, somewhat militaristic and so, that's going to be – you know – possibly something that's difficult to break, but you saw Michael Sam with the Rams this preseason, everything seem to be okay, so it's going to take an owner like Jerry Jones. Let’s see what happens with Michael Sam. I’m predicting, you know, if he’s good enough to play, he’ll play.

RUSSERT: And Chris Long, his teammate in St. Louis, said the only people talking about it are you guys, media, we got over it a long time ago. Sean Gregory, Time magazine, thank you so much for joining us.

Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck
Curtis Houck is a news analyst for the Media Research Center's News Analysis Division