Michael Sam, an all-American defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, is ready for the NFL. Is the NFL ready for him?
Sam announced Sunday night in interviews with ESPN and the New York Times that he is openly gay, something he had told his Mizzou teammates last summer. “I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told John Branch of the Times. “I just want to own my truth.”
Now, as he prepares for the NFL combine later this month and the NFL draft in May, the NFL will have to own that truth as well. Sam, who is projected as a third- or fourth-round draft pick, would be the first openly gay player in the league and would step into a league that has been preparing for a moment like this. The difference, and it probably isn’t surprising, is that the first openly gay player in the NFL will be a rookie and not an established veteran.
For the last year, the issue has been building in the league and in the sports world. Now-former players Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe publicly supported same-sex marriage initiatives in the fall of 2012. The idea of an openly gay NFL player bubbled up as a topic of conversation at the Super Bowl last year, when Chris Culliver of the San Francisco 49ers questioned whether players would accept a gay teammate — and later apologized for his insensitivity. Less than two months after the Super Bowl, Britney Greiner, the top pick in the WNBA, announced that she is gay. Less than a week later, Jason Collins, now a former NBA player, became the first active male athlete in a major U.S. sport to come out. NFL players, like Dave Kopay and Kwame Harris, have come out after retiring from the league. The table seemingly was set for an active player the NFL and, last fall, Mike Freeman of the Bleacher Report wrote that an active player was set to come out until he changed his mind.
Last month, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma expressed reservations about having an openly gay teammate. “I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” he said in an NFL Network interview with Andrea Kremer. “I don’t want people to just naturally assume, oh, we’re all homophobic. That’s really not the case. Imagine if he’s the guy next to me, and you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me, how am I supposed to respond?”
Now there presumably will be fewer whispers, with fewer players feeling compelled to address rumors and innuendo the way Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers did on his weekly radio show last December: “I’m just going to say I’m not gay,” Rodgers said on 540 WAUK-AM in Milwaukee. “I really, really like women. That’s all I can really say about that.”
It is in this rapidly changing yet still uncertain sports environment that Sam has arrived. He has been greeted with welcoming, supportive comments on social media and on TV. What happens next may be more daunting. He’ll go to the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis later this month, where his physical talents, his intellect and his emotional maturity will be evaluated. Questions at the combine have, in the past, been tough. Dez Bryant, three years ago, was asked whether his mother was a prostitute. Kluwe last month alleged that that he was cut by the Minnesota Vikings because of his support of same-sex marriage and Sam will join a league that is investigating its locker-room culture after the Miami Dolphins’ incidents involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin.
Still, the timing for this feels right. There have been increasingly influential campaigns, including It Gets Better and You Can Play, and Sam’s sexual preference was not unknown to NFL scouts or team officials, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reports. The NFL, for its part, says it’s ready. “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement. “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.”
There will be trials, moments when insulting words may be hurled, whether by fans or teammates in the heat of competition. But if Sam can rush the passer and stop the run, he’ll have a future in America’s most popular sports league. It is, MMQB.com’s Peter King writes after speaking to several NFL general managers and a scout, “naive to suggest Sam’s coming out will have no effect on where he’s drafted. … It could be that a liberal owner and progressive coach like Jeffrey Lurie and Chip Kelly of the Eagles will not care at all and, if he’s there in the fourth or fifth round, will grab him.”
The problem, the scout told King, is that being out “is a lot more okay in society than it is in lots of locker rooms. Some locker rooms are still stuck in the ’50s.”
If he has the talent, Sam, who graduated in December, would be a visible, articulate spokesman for his sport — and more.
“I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me,” he told ESPN. “I want to own my truth. . . . No one else should tell my story but me.”