There’s never been an openly gay professional player in any of America’s four major sports leagues (baseball, basketball, hockey, and football), but it looks like that’s about to change now that a talented, NFL-bound player announced to the world that he’s gay. On Sunday, University of Missouri’s Michael Sam declared himself an “openly proud gay man”, making steps toward destroying homophobic stigma that persists in sports culture.
Sam, a defensive lineman, showed a lot of poise during his television interview, perhaps because it wasn’t his first coming out. At the beginning of his senior year, Sam acknowledged his sexuality to his college teammates. “I wouldn’t have the strength to do this today if I didn’t know how much support they’d give me this past semester.”
While former pro players have acknowledged their sexuality after retiring, Sam would be the first to be out while actively playing. Some have questioned Sam’s decision to come out publicly before the NLF draft, but his prior openness about his sexuality necessitated the move. Because his orientation was no longer a secret to his teammates and even NFL scouts, Sam was tipped off that his story was likely to be publicized soon, so he decided to take center stage a little earlier than he anticipated. He said, “I was afraid that it would leak out without me actually owning my truth.”
Despite the enormity of his announcement (“I understand how big this is,” Sam acknowledged), he hoped to also keep some focus on his athletic accomplishments. After helping to lead his team to a victory at the Cotton Bowl, he was named a first team all-American and defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, college football’s most competitive league.
Previous to Sam coming out, sports experts predicted that he would be an early to mid-round draft pick. It’s hard to say how Sam’s admission will affect the selection, but it’s difficult to imagine that every team would pass him up given his talent. Now that his sexuality is open knowledge, hopefully a team that is more accepting of his identity will select him.
Last year, punter Chris Kluwe alleges he was let go by the Minnesota Vikings after becoming an outspoken gay rights advocate. Kluwe, who isn’t gay, says he faced discrimination by certain members of the coaching staff just for supporting the cause. As for Sam, his agent, Joe Barkett, admits that multiple scouts had inquired whether Sam had a girlfriend, indicating that his sexuality may be a concern to certain teams.
For what it’s worth, the NFL is not shying away from the issue. The pro sport organization released an official statement following Sam’s announcement: “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.”
Even if there are obstacles, it’s nothing Sam hasn’t already dealt with at college. Though Sam claims his teammates have “supported [him] from day one,” some of these teammates admitted that not everyone was as immediately accepting. It also took a while for the homophobic banter that was normally tossed around the locker room to dissipate.
However, as Sam’s coach, Gary Pinkel, said, “He’s taught a lot of people here firsthand 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’s teammates even came around to the point where they would visit gay bars or gay pride events with him. They liked and respected Sam enough to also name him their team’s Most Valuable Player.
Hopefully, Sam will continue to break down barriers and – with his winning moves both on and off the field – help to eliminate homophobia in professional sports.
Photo Credit: Marcus Qwertyus