The stage is set for Michael Sam to become the first openly gay man to play in the National Football League, and while the former Missouri defensive end is prepared to handle that spotlight, he acknowledged in interviews with the New York Times and ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” that going public with his sexuality is a “load off my chest.”
The NFL and the University of Missouri, where Sam starred as a defensive lineman, rallied around him. Even first lady Michelle Obama weighed in, calling him an “inspiration” for his courage on and off the field.
Sam, 24, came out to his Tigers teammates in August, and went on to become the co-defensive player of the year in the SEC after registering 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
Initial reaction that poured in from NFL circles was overwhelmingly supportive. Several players took to Twitter to support his decision to come out, and NFL Players Association Ppresident Domonique Foxworth said he believes the league’s players will accept Sam.
“I know that the union will accept him with open arms, as will our players,” Foxworth told ESPN radio on Monday.
Many fans of Missouri football who have watched Sam on the field also showed support and said the news was a non-issue.
“It didn’t affect his play last year and he’s the same person as he was before this was widely known,” said Taylor Foitle, a senior at the university and ardent fan of the Tigers.
In a statement, the NFL said: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. 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.”
Sam is expected to be selected in the upcoming NFL draft, where stand-out college players can earn million-dollar salaries. If picked, he would become the first openly gay player to compete in any of North America’s four major professional sports leagues — football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
Some commentators were less enthusiastic after Sunday’s announcement, including former NFL head coach Herm Edwards, who said on ESPN that Sam may bring “baggage” to a locker room because of the media scrutiny placed on him and his team.
And eight NFL executives and coaches interviewed by Sports Illustrated on the condition of anonymity said Sam’s coming out could hurt his standing in the draft.
Sam is the No. 110-rated prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, projected to be a third- or fourth-round draft pick.
“I understand how big this is,” Sam told ESPN. “It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be, and I want to be a football player in the NFL.”
A native of Hitchcock, Texas, Sam emerged as an All-District player on both lines in 2008, overcoming a difficult childhood that included distancing himself from brothers who were in and out of trouble with the law, and one who died from a gunshot wound. To Sam, telling the world he is gay pales in comparison to the obstacles he already has overcome.
“This is just telling another person that I’m gay, and it shouldn’t be a big problem,” he said. “I’ve endured so much in my past, so much tragedy. There were some hardships, there were some tragedies and some adversity. Telling the world I’m gay is nothing compared to that.”
Sam said he made a choice when he was growing up that he didn’t want to follow in the path of his brothers. Also at a young age, he recognized that he was attracted to males.
“Growing up I didn’t know if it was a phase or it was just — I wanted to find who I was and make sure I knew what was comfortable, so I didn’t really tell anyone growing up,” he said.
He took the first major step toward coming out publicly when he told his teammates in August.
“I was kinda scared,” Sam said of telling his teammates last summer that he is gay. “Even though they already knew, but I was scared to tell them. And just to see their reaction was awesome. They supported me from Day One.”
Now the attention shifts toward Sam’s NFL career. Next up is next week’s Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, where he will face a throng of media and go through extensive individual interviews with NFL teams.
Sam knew word of his sexuality would get out as NFL scouts visited Missouri last season, but the news never became public knowledge even though he felt as if many people at the Senior Bowl last month were aware that he is gay.
Teams are forbidden from seeking information or making personnel decisions “based on a player’s sexual orientation,” according to the NFL’s sexual orientation, anti-discrimination and harassment policy. Sam was going to wait until after the draft to discuss it with his new team, but decided to get in front of the story now before it was leaked to the national media.
“I was going to tell the owner and the coach and the GM about my sexuality [after the draft],” Sam told ESPN. “But I didn’t know how many media actually knew. And I was afraid it would leak out without me actually owning my truth. I wanted to let the world know and let the world know, ‘Hey, I’m gay.” And tell my own story.”
Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay are among former NFL players to come out as gay, and NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay after last season, although he has not signed with a team this season. United States national soccer team player Robbie Rogers came out last year as well, but Sam will become the first active openly gay player in the NFL.
“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,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement. “Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he’s taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”
Sam knows he will encounter hurtful words and actions from some corners, but he’s determined to focus on his football career. He also believes that ultimately the story is about whether he can help a team win games — not about who he dates.
“I make plays, I can help teams win games, and that’s all that should matter,” he said. “Hopefully players should see they don’t judge me because I’m gay. They see, hey, this person works hard, can he win us games? Can he help us win championship? I can.
“It’s a little stereotype that gay people are predators, and it’s just very offensive.”
So what makes him the right person to become the first openly gay player in America’s most popular sport?
“I’m not afraid of who I am,” he told ESPN. “I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am. I am Michael Sam. I’m a college graduate. I’m African-American. And I’m gay.”
Reuters contributed to this report.