Michael Sam, the first openly gay potential draft pick in NFL history, has just received his first endorsement deal.
Sam has joined Visa for a campaign aimed at inspiring “people to reach their own personal goals and aspirations,” according to statement from Visa’s chief marketing officer Kevin Burke. Sam appears in a commercial that debuted on Thursday.
ESPN.com reported this partnership yesterday, the latest news in Sam’s dramatic evolution into a national figure, who is one part star athlete, and also a champion of civil rights.
Sam as gay rights symbol
It was also announced this week that Sam will receive the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2014 ESPYs on July 16, an award given to “those who transcend sports,” according to USA Today.
Previous recipients have included Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela, figures whose political influence helped change the world.
But while the Missouri All-American player has brought the issue of gay rights unique attention by coming out, right now the NFL draft is drawing football fans’ most rapt attention.
By contrast, Sam’s coming out brings a new, intense scrutiny on the sport.
NFL draft as test for league
Right now, throngs of football fans are gathering daily near Radio City Music Hall in New York City to watch the NFL draft. Rowdy young men in jerseys emblazoned with the names of their favorite teams have been cavorting there since Thursday, eager to see who will be added to next season’s line-up.
But much of America is watching instead to see whether Sam will make the cut. If he doesn’t, some think it will cast a pall on the sport.
“For them not to select him would be very problematic,” Cyd Zeigler, the founder of OutSports.com, told NBCNews.com. “If he isn’t selected, it’s a public black eye on the league.”
Since Sam came out in February, his public, pre-draft workouts have been analyzed, and the league has been queried over whether Sam’s sexual orientation will impact his selection.
A league spokesman told The New York Times: “Michael Sam is being evaluated by our teams as a football player. There is nothing to suggest that our teams are approaching it in any other fashion.”
League denies pre-judging pick
And in fact, as much as the SEC defensive player of the year is being watched because he is gay, many everyday people prefer to focus on his performance, not his sexual orientation.
“What difference does it make,” asked one user on The Reid Report show Facebook page, regarding the question of how Sam’s sexuality will impact his fate in the draft. “He’s a good football player[.] That’s what should matter!”
Sam is expected by experts to be drafted on Saturday, although if he is not chosen, the defensive end can still become “an undrafted rookie free agent,” according to The Kansas City Star.
Resisting the “gay” label?
Still, sports insiders say Sam would prefer to be known as a great player, rather than solely as the “first openly gay player” in professional football.
“You know I don’t think there is anything courageous I did,” Sam said of coming out. “I look forward to when we can live life in a world when gays don’t have to come out in public.”
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter @lexisb