Michael Sam, a star at defensive end for the Missouri Tigers, took a step we haven’t seen yet from a draft-eligible athlete in one of the major North American team sports. 

From The New York Times:

Mr. Sam, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior, went on to a stellar season for Missouri, which finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was named a first-team all-American. He was the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football. Teammates voted him Missouri’s most valuable player.

Now Mr. Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.

samThis was a story that many reporters already knew of before Sam told went public on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, and quickly after we found out that multiple NFL personnel people anonymously told SI.com how his announcement would cause his draft stock to plummet.

“I don’t think football is ready for it just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

All the NFL personnel interviewed agreed that Sam’s announcement will cause him to drop in the draft; he was projected between the third and seventh round prior to the announcement. The question will be how far he falls and if he gets chosen at all.

Even a third round grade seems low for a guy named the best defensive player in college football’s best conference — an award previously won by two current 49ers, Patrick Willis and Glenn Dorsey — but before letting the world know he’s gay (Sam came out to his teammates before his senior season), his size caused doubt among scouts.

At 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, Sam could earn the dreaded ‘tweener label from scouts who may see him as too short for defensive end and a project as a stand-up outside linebacker, pushing the productive defender into the second or even third round. Sam’s 6-foot-5, 275-pound teammate, Kony Ealy, in fact, ranks higher on NFLDraftScout.com’s rankings.

That’s a lot of information from other sources, but a little context is needed before we focus on the 49ers’ potential interest in Sam in May’s NFL Draft.

If there’s a region that would not just “handle” the addition of Sam to their local football squad, but actually embrace his arrival, it’s the Bay Area. And despite the regrettable comments Chris Culliver made to Artie Lange before Super Bowl XLVII, the 49ers’ locker room seems like one of the strongest in the league — from an outsider’s perspective, at least. The team has several veteran leaders, and they’ve handled their fair share of media hordes as a team. Not just during their three postseason runs, either — Aldon Smith’s DUI caused some crowding at a few press conferences.

Welcoming an openly gay player would be a new experience for both players and coaches, but nothing that would cause the so-called distractions these anonymous NFL pinheads seem to fear as much (if not more) than a season-ending injury to their starting quarterbacks.

A lot of people are rightfully excited about Sam’s story, as this is an important step on a path that will keep moving forward. Even if Sam doesn’t get drafted and he gets blackballed by the NFL (which wouldn’t surprise me at all, especially considering this tidbit from Peter King), there will be other homosexual players and coaches in football and other sports. It’s unfortunate that we’re only this far along on the road to the acceptance of gay athletes, but teams still like their homophobic humor and they don’t want to deal with a surge in media credential requests from non-sports outlets.

It’d be great for the NFL and Sam if Trent Baalke drafted him for many reasons, one being that the 49ers are one of the league’s premier teams. I don’t believe today’s news would cause the 49ers to put Sam on their “do not draft” list (presuming the front office is tolerant and trusts their PR staff to handle the increased media presence gracefully, which I think they could), and there are some reasons why they might want him. They love defensive players from Mizzou, they have plenty of draft picks (12 projected, including five of the first 94), and the Seattle Seahawks showed everyone that a team can never have too many pass rushers.

Still, it’s probably a longshot that the 49ers consider Sam, and not because of his sexuality (or the presence of Culliver, who’d probably relish the opportunity to have Sam as a teammate, just to prove how much his attitude has changed on the matter).

– Yes, the 49ers have several picks. But they also have a greater need at positions other than outside linebacker, including cornerback, wide receiver, safety, center, and even inside linebacker with the injury to NaVorro Bowman. Baalke also likes to trade for picks in future years to maintain draft-day flexibility.

– Even if the 49ers wanted to add an outside linebacker to go along with Smith, Ahmad Brooks, Corey Lemonier and Dan Skuta (which is possible, since Smith’s legal troubles haven’t been sorted out yet and he could still face a suspension from the NFL), Sam doesn’t fit the prototype.

Trent Baalke loves guys with long arms, something that has been documented repeatedly. Tank Carradine has long arms. Lemonier has long arms. Smith has go-go-Gadget arms.

If the 49ers were to go out on a “limb” (sorry) on a guy who’d automatically be one of their five most famous players from the moment he was chosen, they’d have to believe Sam had the potential to be a star who’d soar past Lemonier and Skuta on the depth chart quickly and give them flexibility in case they were unable/unwilling to extend Smith or felt that cutting Brooks for salary cap purposes was the right move.

Sam was productive in college, but his upside would seem to come more from a human angle. He’s undeniably courageous, and his story has the potential to bring hope and inspiration to millions. However, if that story’s next chapter involves Sam joining an NFL team — as so many of us hope it does — that team probably isn’t going to be the 49ers.