The noise killed Tim Tebow's career. He wasn't a great NFL quarterback, and that didn't help, but the noise around him made his very presence not worth the effort. Could Tebow eventually learn to read defenses well enough to put his unique size and skill set to use? Could his size and skill set be used at another position? The answer to both of those questions was maybe. Until the noise kicked in. And then the answer became: Doesn't matter -- not worth it.
There is a lesson here for Michael Sam and his advisers. Maybe his advisers truly care about his NFL career. Maybe they care more about Michael Sam as a cause. We'll find out if the noise is allowed -- encouraged -- to grow.
So far, so bad. Sam has agreed to let his first foray into professional football be turned into a series of documentaries. Michael Sam as reality television? That's some serious noise, but that doesn't do the decibels justice -- because the documentaries will be produced by Oprah Winfrey. Nothing against Oprah as a person or a business conglomerate. She's fabulous. But to everything she does, she brings the noise. Hell, she is noise. She's one of the most influential women in America. She recommends a book, and it becomes a best seller. She does a series of documentaries on a player, any player, and it will generate airplane-engine noise.
And that player is Michael Sam, who already has the attention of the country on him. Like him, don't like him. Support him, don't. However you feel about Michael Sam, even if what you feel about Michael Sam is "not another headline about Michael Sam," you're paying attention to him. And for an NFL player, for a marginal NFL player, a whole lot of attention is a whole lot of a bad idea.
Ask Tebow, if you can find him. He's out of the league now, probably for good, because he just wasn't worth the noise. Denver got a taste of it and moved him to the Jets. The Jets had Tebow just long enough to decide they'd rather stick with Mark Sanchez too long, and then replace him with Greg McElroy, rather than giving Tebow the chance to do some of the Denver magic and win some games and then what? Then the Jets would be stuck with Tebow, stuck with all that noise. The Patriots brought in Tebow because the Patriots are soundproof, and maybe because Bill Belichick is buddies with Tebow's mentor, Urban Meyer. But Tebow was never going to play there. He didn't. And now he's gone.
Noise isn't needed in the NFL. This is the National, not the Arena, Football League. The NFL is a noisemaker unto itself, and NFL teams are more concerned with quieting the frenzy than building one. Look at the Cleveland Browns and Johnny Manziel. He was the most popular player in college football, and he'll be one of the most popular players in the NFL -- already his jersey is the most coveted in the league, and the Browns have sold more than 3,000 season tickets since he was drafted a week ago -- and the Browns are scared to death of all that noise.
Owner Jimmy Haslam has told Manziel to be ready to hold a clipboard, because he's coming to Cleveland as a backup to, um, Brian Hoyer. The Browns have shut down the media's access to ho-hum May practices, which is counter-intuitive unless you have
Tim Tebow Johnny Manziel on your roster, and then it makes sense. Because Manziel attracts a crowd, and crowds make noise, and chemistry is a fragile thing in an NFL locker room. Those are big kids in there, big babies really, and they won't tolerate a kid like Johnny Football coming in as the starter (hence Haslam's words) and getting more media attention than the rest of the roster combined (hence the media decree).
At least Manziel's noise is mostly football related. Sure there's the other stuff he does, the Drake and LeBron stuff that Haslam tried to tamp down when he told Manziel that Cleveland "is a hard-working, blue-collar town -- this isn't Hollywood." But most of the fascination with Manziel is with his football ability, and how it will (or maybe won't) translate to the NFL.
Sam is generating Tebow-like noise, and Tebow noise will get a guy cut. Ironic doesn't begin to describe the similarity between Tebow and Sam, but both have more gravitas as a social experiment than as a football prospect. Tebow is the devout evangelist, hero to the conservative Christian masses, and that's where the noise came from. It came from both sides, from those who love him and his worldview, and those who are offended by it. The noise was too much, but the noise wasn't Tebow's fault. He did a commercial here and there, and he talked about his faith all the time, but he never asked to be ground zero of the growing debate in this country about religion and its place in sports. We did that to Tebow, not vice versa.
Michael Sam? He's doing some of it to himself. Certainly noise was going to happen around Sam regardless, even if he hadn't kissed his boyfriend after being drafted, live on ESPN and then in a picture posted to Twitter of him kissing his boyfriend's cake-smeared face. Michael Sam is the first openly gay player in the most popular sports league in this country: He doesn't need any help generating noise.
But a documentary on the Oprah Winfrey Network? With cameras following him as much as the Rams will allow? That's a lot of noise. That's ear-splitting volume for a player who might be too slow to play linebacker and too small to play defensive end.
As a prospect, Michael Sam is a lot like Tim Tebow: Maybe he can become an eventual NFL player.
Maybe, because of the noise, he won't be worth the effort.