Pro football prospect Michael Sam revealed through various media outlets Sunday night that he is gay, setting the stage for the National Football League to have its first openly gay active player.
Sam made the announcement to both the New York Times and ESPN, beginning with a clear statement of his identity. “I came to tell the world that I am an openly, proud gay man,” he told journalist Chris Connolly in an interview for ESPN’s Outside the Lines. Per an exclusive report from Outsports co-founder Cyd Ziegler, Sam’s revelation was part of a coordinated public-relations effort involving publicist Howard Bragman, who has aided gay players seeking to make similar revelations in the past.
However, Sam made it clear in interviews that his University of Missouri teammates have known he is gay since last August, before a 2013 season in which they went 12-2 and scored a win in the AT&T Cotton Bowl. “I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads—like, finally, he came out,” Sam told the Times. His teammates kept his secret until his announcement Sunday.
Sam excelled as a defensive end at Missouri, where teammates named him the most valuable player on the squad last season. The 6’ 2”, 260-pounder earned first-team All-American honors and an invite to January’s Senior Bowl, as well the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year award in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). A CBS Sports draft analysis last updated on Dec. 26 predicted Sam would be drafted in “the second or even third round,” worrying that he might “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.”
Former NFL linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, a vocal straight ally for marriage equality, wrote in a Fox Sports column that Sam’s revelation being timed prior to the NFL Scouting Combine later this month will help him because “any announcement or news conference could be construed as a negative and scare off teams.” But while the NFL lauded Sam’s announcement in an official statement, league scouts and front-office officials speaking anonymously to Sports Illustrated indicated that Sam’s draft stock may suffer further because he is now openly gay.
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” an NFL player personnel assistant told SI reporters Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans. “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.” Another said he knows it’ll drop Sam on draft boards: “It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?’”
SI’s Peter King tweeted that an NFL general manager told him he believes Sam will not be drafted in the seven rounds of May’s NFL Draft, and called him “overrated.” King, for a story on The MMQB, also spoke with a pro scout:
“It’ll totally depend on your leadership,” the scout said. “A team with strong leadership at coach and in the locker room, like New England, I would imagine, would be okay. I could see [Patriots head coach Bill] Belichick say, ‘This is the way it is. There’s no story.’ And guys would just accept him. There’d be no choice. But without that strong leadership, I could see it being divisive, and I could see a team saying, ‘We don’t need this.’”
But Sam’s college teammates not only heard the truth and accepted him, but kept his secret during one of the school’s best seasons in decades. Times sports columnist Juliet Macur noted in her column Pope Francis’s recent LGBT-friendly commentary. Why should this still be an issue in the NFL, in 2014?
If recent comments from New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma are any indication, it remains a problem. In a recent interview with NFL Network, Vilma stated his concerns about a gay teammate looking at him naked in the shower. Many current NFL players and retired legends like Deion Sanders tweeted support for Sam, but others expressed concern for how Sam may be accepted by teammates. Miami Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes tweeted, “Realistically my ‘don’t give a damn’ attitude isn’t everyone’s, so there are some that this won’t go over so well with.”
But Bragman told Ziegler that he thinks Sam was the perfect choice to break the barrier. “If we were choosing someone to be the first, we’d choose someone like Michael,” he said. “Smart, athletic, handsome. I don’t think Central Casting could have come up with someone better.” Wade Davis, a former NFL player who revealed publicly that he is gay two years ago, told msnbc early Monday morning that Sam’s revelation “makes me smile and feel full of love.”
“He has been out and he’s just inviting the rest of us in,” said Davis, the executive director of the You Can Play Project, an advocacy campaign dedicated to ending homophobia in sports. “It takes more courage to be vulnerable and invite people into your life.”
Sam, for his part, is embracing this historic moment as he prepares for the NFL Scouting Combine on Feb. 22. He told the Missourian, “I know who I am. I know what I have to do. I’m not scared. I’m not afraid.”
Watch our Sunday conversation about Sam and ‘coming out’ above and below.