Michael Sam, a defensive end on the University of Missouri football team and the reigning Associated Press Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, came out as gay Sunday in an interview with the New York Times and ESPN. Sam’s teammates knew of his sexuality throughout the 2013 season, during which he racked up 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss, and while he had not asked them to keep it secret, this is his first public acknowledgement. He just told his parents last week.
Other players at smaller colleges have come out recently. What makes Sam unique and important is that he has exhausted his college eligibility and will almost surely be selected in May’s NFL Draft. If he’s drafted, he will be the first openly gay player selected in the NFL Draft. If he makes a team next fall, he could become the first openly gay player in NFL history — and the first in any of the four major American men’s professional leagues (NBA veteran Jason Collins came out last April but has not signed with a team since).
CBS Sports ranks Sam as the ninth-best defensive end and the 90th overall prospect in the 2014 draft. It projects him as a third-round selection.
Sam will test the NFL, a league that is trying to make itself more open to gay athletes but has also had high-profile bouts with homophobia. The league has bolstered its non-discrimination policy and is partnering with the You Can Play Project to help LGBT youth, and its Players Association has been vocal in its support of equality both on the field and off, as have many NFL players. At the same time, the league has been plagued by LGBT-related controversy. Before the 2013 draft, multiple players reported that teams had asked them about their sexuality, a violation of league policy. And former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, a vocal LGBT equality advocate, alleged this year that his former special teams coach used his advocacy efforts against him — and made disparaging remarks about gays.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello said on Twitter. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
Sam told ESPN and the Times that he came out before the draft so that whichever team selected him knew exactly what it was getting, and that he hoped his new locker room would be as accepting as the one he’s leaving behind at Mizzou:
“I just want to go to the team who drafts me,” he said, “because that team knows about me, knows that I’m gay, and also knows that I work hard. That’s the team I want to go to.”
Sam said that despite some comments from current players, he doesn’t anticipate difficulty gaining acceptance in an NFL locker room.
“Hopefully it will be the same like my locker room,” he said. “It’s a workplace. if you’ve ever been in a Division I or pro locker room, it’s a business place. You want to act professional.”
Multiple NFL team insiders, cloaked in anonymity, told Sports Illustrated that they felt Sam’s coming out would negatively affect his draft stock, even as one executive said that 90 percent of teams already knew he was gay. Many of them cited the media attention Sam would draw, an excuse similar to the one that helped derail the coming out of a player ahead of the 2013 season, according to Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman. As I wrote at the time, those fears make little sense, though they are illustrative of the conflicting views on the issue inside the league.
Still, it’s hard to imagine that, barring injury, Sam won’t get drafted. So unless someone else comes out first, Sam will likely become the NFL’s first openly gay player in 2014, and he’ll hopefully be the first of many athletes in our major leagues who decide they no longer need to live in the closet to play the games they love.