Michael Sam, the 6-foot-2, 255 pound All-American and AP SEC co-defensive player of the year is working through the process of preparing for the NFL Draft and hoping to bring his talents – showcased so often at Missouri – to Sundays. To some, he is also paving the way to a more open sports world. He unabashedly announced that he is gay on Sunday.
“I am an openly proud gay man,” Sam, 24, told reporters. Not if, but when he is drafted, he will become the first openly gay player in the NFL and, to some extent follow in the steps of Jason Collins, who became the first openly gay active member of the NBA months ago.
The NFL is a league driven largely by machismo, and the few who have come out waited until their playing days were over. Sam, who has an intimidating stature and look, fits in on the field. Off of it, he will be different than any NFL player before him. In that sense, Sam is a pioneer, and he has been touted as highly courageous and bold. The timing if his announcement, however, is interesting considering the fact that the NFL Draft is coming up in May.
But Sam had none of the reservations that others before him have had, both in college and now. “Where I had internalized homophobia and crippling doubts about how I would be received, Michael knew 100% that his teammates wouldn’t care,” said Wade Davis, a former captain at Weber State and NFL player who came out nine years after retiring. Certainly, Davis was never as comfortable or confident as Sam was.
Upon telling his teammates at school, Sam said, “I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads – like, finally, he came out.” But though his Mizzou teammates were supportive Sam will be sure to face opposition and challenges in the NFL.
One of them, perhaps surprisingly, might be getting drafted. Despite his accolades as a college athlete, Herm Edwards, a current ESPN analyst, long-time NFL player, and Head Coach of the Jets and Chiefs, said, “He’s bringing baggage into your locker room.” Regardless of how good of a player Sam might be, or whether he has the support of his teammates, his draft stock could fall because teams don’t want to take on the burden of the media coverage and potential distractions that Sam would bring.
And make no mistake, for better or worse, the media will be there following his every move and asking teammates what they think.
Edwards’ remarks have certainly proven to be controversial, and there has been an outpouring of backlash. Donte’ Stallworth, a former player who had his own off-the-field troubles after a drunk-driving incident resulted in him killing a man, took to Twitter to say that Sam certainly has a place in the NFL.
“If any NFL team can’t ‘handle the media coverage’ of drafting Sam, then your team is already a loser on the field,” he said. “There are a multitude of issues that can arise in the long duration of an NFL season … some on the field, some off the field. You won’t have any idea what that on the field/off the field situation is until it’s already upon you and the entire organization, which means that with drafting Michael Sam, you get a jump start on controlling the ‘media coverage’ right from the onset.”
Sam has not specifically said why he chose to come out now, especially with the NFL Draft on the horizon. But according to Davis, “Here’s the truth: Everybody at Mizzou knew Michael was gay, and he wanted to tell his own story…the fear of being outed before he got his say was a major factor.”
On Sunday, Sam Tweeted, “I’m proud to tell my story to the world!” This suggests that taking control of his own story was his main priority.
Predicting how Sam will be accepted (or not) on the NFL team that drafts him is impossible since, quite simply, there is no precedent. And the college and NFL worlds are completely different, so it is hard to assume that his acceptance at Mizzou will translate to the pros.
“I wondered if he truly grasped the significance of this moment that would change lives for gay men and women in sports going forward,” Davis writes. “Then I decided that it doesn’t really matter if he does. He’s here to play football.”
Finding the balance between the struggle of an NFL rookie on the field and coming out in the public eye will be the biggest challenge for young man.