Well this is a first and is likely to be a big story over the next few months. Michael Sam, a first-team all-American linebacker/defensive end from Missouri who is expected to be one of top draft picks in the NFL draft in May, has publicly revealed that he is gay.
Now Mr. Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.
As the pace of the gay rights movement has accelerated drastically in recent years, the sports industry has changed relatively little, with no publicly gay male athletes in the N.F.L., the N.B.A., the N.H.L. or Major League Baseball. Against this backdrop, Mr. Sam could become a symbol for the country’s gay rights movement or a flash point in a football culture war — or both.
Mr. Sam, 24, is projected to be chosen in the early rounds of the N.F.L. draft in May, ordinarily an invitation to a prosperous pro career. He said he decided to come out publicly now because he sensed that rumors were circulating.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” said Mr. Sam, who also spoke with ESPN on Sunday. “I just want to own my truth.”
But the N.F.L. presents the potential for unusual challenges. In the past year or so, it has been embroiled in controversies ranging from antigay statements from players to reports that scouts asked at least one prospective player if he liked girls. Recently, Chris Kluwe, a punter, said that he was subject to homophobic language from coaches and pushed out of a job with the Minnesota Vikings because he vocally supported same-sex marriage laws. And last week, Jonathan Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, said in an interview with NFL Network that he did not want a gay teammate.“I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” said Mr. Vilma, a 10-year league veteran.
In a statement Sunday night, the league said: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the N.F.L. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
There will undoubtedly be teams that decide not to draft him solely because of this, and not necessarily because the owners, coaches or general managers are bigoted against gay people. Some of them will decide it simply isn’t worth the potential distraction in the locker room and the press attention. But he’s going to get drafted and he will then become the first openly gay NFL player. Those 260 pound shoulders are going to have a whole lot more weight on them than other rookies will have. But I’ll certainly be rooting for him. He’s this generation’s Jackie Robinson. Good luck, Mr. Sam.
One important thing to note is that he was out to his college teammates and none of them seemed to care. There wasn’t even a hint of a problem in the Missouri locker room that ever got reported. I suspect that the front office and ownership of teams will have a much more difficult time with this than coaches and players.