05/16/2014 09:25 EDT | Updated 07/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Michael Sam and the Fight Against the Christian Right

For the first time in U.S. history gay rights took centre stage during the NFL's entry draft, a three-day media bonanza carried live on television. The event will be mostly remembered for spawning a new pop culture reference known as "The Kiss" to rival with "The Catch." To most rabid football fans "The Catch," is shorthand for the winning touchdown reception by Dwight Clark off a Joe Montana pass during the 1982 NFC Championship Game between the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers.

"The Kiss" entered the public lexicon moments after the St. Louis Rams picked Michael Sam, the NFL's first openly gay player, who kissed his partner on the lips on live television. It's hard to understate America's obsession with college and professional football before, during and after Thanksgiving, a secular ritual that blends turkey and pigskin with religious fervor. In a country where Christian evangelicals remain a potent political force, "The Kiss" was bound to draw new battle lines between liberals and conservatives.

"Openly gay football players send a terrible message to our youth about morality. Somebody needs to step up because the moral fiber of the nation is eroding," says Jack Burkman, head of the powerful Washington, D.C. lobbying firm JM Burkman & Assoc. His firm and influential grassroots organisations in 27 of the 50 states are organizing a nationwide boycott against the St. Louis Rams, Visa and any company that hires Michael Sam.

"Jack Burkman is someone who cannot be taken seriously," says Paul Guequierre, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, America's best-known LGBT advocacy group. "The NFL is ready for an openly gay player and so is America. Jack Burkman is out of touch and a laughingstock. His boycott will go nowhere," predicts Guequierre.

"Visa and the Rams will learn that when you trample the Christian community and Christian values, there will be a terrible financial price to pay," says Burkman. Unlike Jason Collins of the Brooklyn Nets who came out in the twilight of his NBA career, Sam announced his sexual orientation before his professional career had even begun. In other words, he was willing to sacrifice his career and millions of dollars to live his life openly. Although he had originally planned on coming out after the draft, in the face of intense media speculation, he eventually decided to put it all on the line. His gamble seems to be paying off.

Hours after the St. Louis Rams picked him, his jersey became the second best-selling among NFL rookies, just behind Heisman Trophy winner and Cleveland Browns quarterback, Johnny Manziel, a.k.a. Johnny Football. An NFC scout who spent significant time evaluating Sam told USA TODAY Sports last month, "He's tight, he's stiff and he's short (Sam is 6'2" and 261 pounds). He's got a lot going against him. But he's got the part that's going to be hard for us to discount, and that's his motor. You have to decide on your roster, what does he do and how does he fit? He's relentless, and players like that -- they can make things happen just with their will alone."

It's unusual for Sam to be such a hot commodity considering he was the 249th player selected out of 256 total selections. In other words, he almost didn't get drafted. "This is unprecedented for a Day 3 pick, let alone a seventh round pick, to crack the top five rookies sold following draft weekend," NFL spokesperson Joanna Hunter said. Oprah Winfrey's cable network OWN also announced a reality TV series following Sam as he prepares for his first professional training camp.

However, all these accolades and the media frenzy generated since his coming out last February don't answer one basic question: Why did Michael Sam, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference, (the best in college football) get drafted so late?


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