Michael Sam Becomes First Openly Gay Man Selected In The NFL Draft
Another barrier for equal rights for all fell on Saturday when Michael Sam, from the University of Missouri, was drafted into the NFL by the St. Louis Rams with the 249th overall pick. Sam, who was named the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Defensive Player of the Year for 2013, is the first openly gay man to be drafted into any of the four major professional sports in America.
The event happened just one day after Arkansas became the latest in a long line of states to see its same-sex marriage ban struck down.
In the immediate wake of Sam’s courageous decision to come out, NFL teams and players had encouraging things to say, with many general managers explicitly stating it would have no impact on their evaluation of Sam as a player. But “all the NFL personnel members” that Sports Illustrated spoke to off the record “believed that Sam’s announcement will cause him to drop in the draft.” It appears that if may have contributed: Sam is only the second person ever to hold the title of SEC Defensive Player of the Year and fall out of the top 33 picks of the NFL draft–let alone to number 249. Before the draft, he was projected to go 169th, in part because of a worse-than-expected performance at the NFL combine.
Buzz of the potentially historic moment had been building as draft day approached. Early last week, ESPN selected Sam as the winner of this year’s Arthur Ashe Courage Award, given to individuals who transcend sports. Then Sam signed a sponsorship agreement with Visa, tackling his off-the-field notoriety head on in a TV ad that aired during the first night of the NFL draft: “Judge me for what I do on the field,” he said. The audience for ESPN’s Saturday draft coverage, with a focus on Sam, was up 22 percent or almost 2 million viewers from the previous year.
When Sam was finally selected, he celebrated the moment as many others would: with an embrace and a kiss from his significant other, who just happens to be another man (watch the video of Sam getting the call saying he’d been picked here):
Sam now faces the next challenge in the process of becoming the first openly gay NFL athlete in history: making it through training camp and securing a spot on the roster. It’s not a given, according to those in the know: “Sam is considered undersized for an NFL defensive end and may have to become a linebacker in the pros.”
And to be sure, he will have to face more controversy around his sexual orientation. Even as he was selected, one Miami Dolphins player tweeted, “horrible.” But in an indication of how the league will treat any behavior of this nature, the player was promptly fined, suspended and forced to apologize.
BOTTOM LINE: The fight for LGBT equality took another big step forward on Saturday. Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted into one of America’s four major professional sports.