Former University of Missouri star Michael Sam, thought to be one of the top defensive end prospects in the upcoming NFL draft, has informed a circle of advisers that he’s gay and plans to become the league’s first out gay player.
Sam finished his senior season as the SEC’s co-Defensive Player of the Year and made a number of All-American teams. He figures to be drafted somewhere in the first three rounds in May, according to most league analysts.
If Sam is drafted and then makes an NFL roster, he will be responsible for breaking a barrier that many — even out gay former NFL player Esera Tuaolo — never thought would happen in his lifetime.
“This is what everybody has been waiting for,” Tuaolo told BuzzFeed Sunday night. “Now it’s time for the NFL, the owners and each team to either put up and shut up.”
The news of Sam’s plans was first reported by the New York Times Sunday evening, and Sam soon thereafter took to his new Twitter account to share his thoughts about the moment:
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” said Sam said in an interview with the Times, the first time he’s spoken to the media about his orientation. “I just want to own my truth.”
At the University of Missouri, Sam revealed his sexual orientation to his college teammates and friends long before deciding to tell national media outlets.
“This is less of a coming out story than a welcoming people in story,” said Patrick Burke of the You Can Play! Project, which worked with Sam prior to today’s news. “He’s been out on campus for a couple of years.”
Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, Missouri’s athletic department recorded a “You Can Play” commercial — which emphasizes the school’s support for LGBT athletes — last fall and sent a version of it to Burke and his staffers.
“We didn’t know why it was sent to us,” Burke said. “Now we get it. The best athlete they had on campus was gay.”
A 6-foot-2, 260-pound defensive end, Sam projects as an outside linebacker in the NFL. He will bring with him an impressive resume: team captain for the 12-2 Tigers, who went on to win the Cotton Bowl; consensus first-team All-American; top defensive player in the SEC, which is generally regarded as the best college football league; and later, teammates voted him the team’s most valuable player.
Burke said Sam decided to come out now to give teams a chance to consider him completely, as a player and a man, prior to the draft.
“The most important thing about coming out before the draft is that will ensure that the teams that want him can get him,” Burke said. “We want him to go to a team that’s supportive of him. There won’t be a surprise, for lack of a better term. I would rather him go in the fifth round to a team that want him than a team in the second round that didn’t.”
Sam will enter a league that hasn’t always shown its best public face when dealing with LGBT issues. Recently, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe claimed that he lost his job because his LGBT advocacy. Last week, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he would be uncomfortable showering with a gay teammate in an interview with the NFL Network. Additionally, former NFL receiver Chad Johnson told BuzzFeed last week that the league wasn’t ready for an openly gay player because “the locker room would be in shambles.”
League officials, however, have been much more receptive to creating a welcoming environment and been in regular contact with the You Can Play Project, Athlete Ally and GLAAD, among other organizations. Two months ago, the NFL sent former NFL players and NFL player-engagement execs Troy Vincent and Dwight Hollier to the Hetrick-Martin Institute (HMI) in Manhattan as part of an initiative to bring players together on a one-on-one basis with LGBT youth across the country.
The NFL released a statement in support of Sam late Sunday. “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.”
The NFL Player’s Association also issued a statement to BuzzFeed: “We support Michael in his brave decision to share his personal story. NFL players come from many different backgrounds and have many different viewpoints, and we know he will be supported.”
Tuaolo, who came out in 2003 after playing in the NFL from 1991 until 1999, was optimistic about the environment awaiting Sam.
“I truly believe a lot of players in the NFL are going to rally around him,” said Tuaolo, who is now You Can Play’s Special Advisor on Faith and Religion.
But, with no names attached, some in the NFL were still willing to go in the opposite direction, telling SI.com that they didn’t believe the NFL was ready for an out player.
Sam’s announcement has been more than a month in the making, according to Burke.
A strategy for rolling out the news was coordinated by Sam and his representatives, sports-themed LGBT advocacy groups like You Can Play, and the NFL — a process detailed at length in an OutSports article Sunday night. Sam has been working with powerful Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, who has helped the coming out of Tuaolo, golfer Rosie Jones, former WNBA player Sheryl Swoopes and former NBA player John Amaechi.
Burke believes that Sam’s courage will now emboldened others to follow his lead.
“I thought this summer was going to be the breakout summer anyway,” Burke said. “We were starting to see this momentum building. I genuinely thought this would be the big year and everyone would start doing it. My hope and belief is that Michael will be the first of several more this summer.”
A native of Hitchcock, Texas, about 40 miles southeast of Houston, Sam was one of eight children born to Michael and JoAnn Sam. He told the Times that he had a difficult childhood. Raised mostly by his mother, Sam said three of his siblings have died, and two brothers are in prison.
He graduated from Missouri in December, majoring in parks, recreation and tourism. Sam said he’s the only member of his family to attend college.
“I’m not naïve,” Sam said. “I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the NFL.”