Already a first-team all-American, Cotton Bowl champion, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and MVP as voted by his teammates, former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam could potentially add one more title to his name: the first openly gay player in the National Football League.
“I’m Michael Sam, I’m a football player, and I’m gay,” said the 24-year-old in an interview with the New York Times, published on Sunday. “Is this a huge deal? I understand it is. But my purpose and focus right now is playing football.”
The 6-foot-2, 260-pound Mizzou alum already came out to his teammates in training last summer. But he had never before spoken publicly about his sexual orientation. The reason Sam decided to do so now--three months before the NFL draft, where he’s projected to be chosen early--was to “own [his] truth,” he told the Times, in the face of circulating rumors.
“I’m comfortable with who I am, and I didn’t want anyone to break a story,” said Sam. “I want to tell it the way I want to tell it.”
Sam’s declaration follows an unprecedented year of progress for the gay rights movement, with the number of states that allow same-sex couples to marry now at 17, plus the District of Columbia. The federal government also recognizes same-sex marriages after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a central provision of the Defense of Marriage Act last June. In line with that ruling, Attorney General Eric Holder announced on Saturday a series of new protections for gay couples--including the right to not testify against a spouse in federal court, benefits to same-sex spouses of public safety officers who are killed or injured in the line of duty, and eligibility to qualify for compassionate release or reduced sentences should an incapacitated same-sex spouse require care.
But the world of pro sports has notoriously lagged behind, allowing what many view as a macho, “locker room” culture of homophobia to persist. Very few athletes have come out in support of gay rights or as gay themselves, and of the ones who have, some believe it came at a price. NBA free agent Jason Collins announced he was gay after a season with the Washington Wizards last spring, but hasn’t been signed by a team this year. And last month, former Minnesota Viking Chris Kluwe accused his former team of firing him based on his support for marriage equality, not on his performance.
Sam’s teammates and fellow athletes offered an outpouring of support on social media following his interview with the Times. The NFL also released a statement Sunday night saying that it admired “Sam’s honesty and courage,” and that it looked forward “to welcoming and supporting” him this year.
But in interviews with Sports Illustrated, eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches said Sam’s declaration could do damage to his draft stock. “It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room,” one NFL player personnel assistant said.
Still, Sam has hopes society will rally around him, as his family and teammates already have. In an interview with NBC News Monday, Sam's father who shares the same name said he was "shocked" to learn his son was gay via text message just last week. But, he added, "No matter what, he's my son and I still love him."
While Sam hopes to be embraced as the first openly gay player in the NFL, that’s not the title he wants to define his life.
“I want to be defined," he said, "for being a great person, and having a great character."