NFL Draft Prospect: 'I Am An Openly, Proud Gay Man'

By Chris Hoenig

Michael Sam was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference, considered the toughest conference in all of college football. He was a first-team All-American defensive lineman last year at the University of Missouri, where his teammates voted him their MVP. To many, he’s been viewed as a mid- to late-round NFL draft prospect.

And he’s gay.

In an interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines, Sam made his orientation public. “I am an openly, proud gay man.

It’s something his teammates at Mizzou have known since August, when he came out to them as part of a preseason team-building exercise. “I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their headslike, finally, he came out,” Sam told The New York Times on Sunday, the same day the ESPN interview aired.

Telling his teammates about his sexuality seemed to Sam to be more of a formality than anything. He had already told close friends and had dated another athlete at the school, who was not a football player. And before telling his teammates, he told his coaches.

He didn’t ask his teammates to keep his announcement a secret, but no one leaked the information to the press.

“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 orientationwe’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”

Sam told ESPN that he made his decision to come out publicly after many players at the Senior Bowl in late January already seemed to know. “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. “I want to own my truth. … No one else should tell my story but me.

“I understand how big this is,” he added. “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. … I want to be a football player in the NFL.”

But for Sam, the announcement was the easy part. The Hitchcock, Texas, native has faced far more adversity in his life than confusion about sexual orientation growing up. “I endured so much in my past: seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, not knowing that my oldest sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet her. My second oldest brother went missing in 1998, and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him. My other two brothers have been in and out of jail since eighth grade, currently both are in jail.

“Telling the world I’m gay is nothing compared to that.”

Saturday night, less than 24 hours before his personal life would make headlines around the country, Sam had dinner with a group who could offer support: Dave Kopay and Wade Davis, former NFL players who came out after their careers ended; Billy Bean, a former Major League Baseball player who also came out after retiring; and Chris Kluwe and Brendan Ayanbadejo, two former National Football League players who are vocal LGBT activists.

It was a coming out party, of sorts.

Davis, Kopay, Sam, Kluwe, Bean, Anyanbadejo

Draft Stock Hurt

Many scouts had pegged the 6’2″, 260-pound defensive end as a mid- to late-round pick in April’s NFL draft. His SEC-leading 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss were balanced by his size, or lack of it, for his position. Most saw him going somewhere between the third and seventh (and final) round.

But Sam’s announcement could change all that. “I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” an NFL player personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

The magazine spoke with eight different NFL executives and coaches, agreeing to preserve their anonymity in exchange for candor. All of them said Sam’s decision to announce his orientation publicly will hurt his chances of being drafted. “I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down,” said a veteran NFL scout. “There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier'” One general manager flat out said he doesn’t think Sam will be drafted.

The locker-room culture (more on that below) and the potential media circus are among the biggest concerns as teams look at potential additions to their teams. “Not that they’re against gay people. It’s more that some players are going to look at you upside down,” one former general manager said. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves'”

Just last week, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma told NFL Network he is afraid a gay teammate would look at him in the shower. “I think that he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” Vilma said. “I don’t want people to just naturally assume, like, ‘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”

“You’re going to have to have one confident general manager or head coach who is certainly entrenched in his position and established to draft a player like that,” the player personnel assistant said. “It’s one thing to have Chris Kluwe or Brendon Ayanbadejo, advocates for gay rights, on your team. It’s another to have a current confirmed player.”

But even having a player like Kluwe or Ayanbadejo appears to be an issue for teams. Since speaking out for LGBT rights, both players have been cut and neither has been able to find a new team. Basketball player Jason Collins made headlines by coming out last year, but his career has essentially ended and he has not signed with any team since his announcement.

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