Michael Sam, a bruising defensive end on one of 2013’s most surprising college football teams, announced Sunday he is gay.
He didn’t back into the revelation or simply hint at it. The Missouri defender and the Associated Press’s SEC co-defensive player of the year said it, owned it, and now stands at the fringe of one of sports’ last social frontiers: becoming the first openly gay NFL player.
“I am an openly proud gay man,” Sam, 24, was quoted as saying in reports posted Sunday by ESPN and the New York Times.
Sam, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound all-American, made his announcement two weeks before the annual NFL scouting combine, and early reaction Sunday evening suggested his decision was meant in part to answer questions he’ll face anyway in Indianapolis.
“I am proud to tell my story to the world!” was among several messages posted on Sam’s Twitter account late Sunday.
Sam said during the interviews that his teammates knew of his sexuality throughout the 2013 season, when Missouri was picked to finish sixth in the SEC East — but instead won the division and finished 12-2. The Tigers lost to Auburn, the national runner-up, in the SEC championship game and finished their season with a win against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
Sam therefore has a strong answer when NFL coaches and executives will no doubt ask him how he thinks his sexuality with play in a professional locker room. Some players have been outspoken about their reluctance to play alongside a gay teammate, and others suggested publicly that they would pay no attention to a teammate’s sexuality — as long as his play was satisfactory.
Now much of the draft’s attention will center on whether Sam’s announcement affects his draft stock. Sam, projected to be chosen as high as the third round in May’s draft, can point to his résumé and that of his overachieving team. He had 111 / 2 sacks, 19 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles alongside teammates who, Sam said, already knew his secret. He told the ESPN and Times reporters that he came out before the 2013 season when, during a team gathering, each player was asked to reveal something about himself that no one knew.
“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out,” the Times quoted Sam as saying.
Teammates and coaches did not out Sam, even during a high-profile season and the increased attention that came with being a national title contender.
“We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou,” Tigers Coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement released Sunday by the school.
Retired players in various sports have come out, but no active player in any of the four major sports has made such an announcement. Former NBA player Jason Collins announced last April he is gay, following John Amaechi’s announcement in 2007. Former NFL offensive tackle Kwame Harris came out last year, prompting a negative reaction from San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver.
“I don’t do the gays, man,” Culliver said last year, days before his team played in the Super Bowl. “I don’t do that. No, we don’t got no gay people on the team; they got to get up out of here if they do.”
Chris Kluwe, a longtime NFL punter and gay rights advocate, wrote last month on Deadspin that he heard frequent gay slurs from a Minnesota Vikings assistant coach and believed he was cut because of his support for same-sex marriage, though the Vikings strongly disputed the report.
Sam said, according to the reports, his announcement was prompted in part by circulating rumors two weeks ago at the Senior Bowl, where NFL team representatives gather to scout players entering the draft. It hastened his original plan, he said, to come out after the draft.
“I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me,” he said, according to ESPN. “I want to own my truth. . . . No one else should tell my story but me.”