Missouri All-American Michael Sam says he is gay, and the defensive end could become the first openly homosexual player in the NFL. In interviews with ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports that were published Sunday, Sam said his teammates and coaches at Missouri have known since August.
"I am an openly, proud gay man," he said.
The 255-pound Sam participated in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month after leading the SEC in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19), and he is projected to be a mid-round NFL draft pick.
"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," he said in the interviews.
There have been numerous NFL players who have come out after their playing days, including Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay.
Last year, NBA player Jason Collins announced he was gay after the season. Collins, a 35-year-old backup center, was a free agent and has not signed with a new team this season. MLS star and U.S. national team player Robbie Rogers also came out a year ago.
Division III Willamette kicker Conner Mertens, a redshirt freshman, said last month he was bisexual.
"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the NFL said in statement. "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."
A year ago, NFL teams were rightfully criticized for asking potential draft picks questions on the order of "Do you have a girlfriend?" This year, Sam will save them the trouble of having to ask.
If Jason Collins demolished one barrier last year -- declaring that he was gay within days of finishing his 12th NBA season -- Sam laid ruin to another by coming out before the draft. Where Collins is a Stanford grad from Los Angeles, Sam is more than a decade younger and hails from Hitchcock, Texas (pop. 7,200). And unlike Collins -- who surprised his twin brother with his revelation -- Sam's sexuality was not a closely guarded secret at Missouri. Sam says he came out to his Missouri teammates last August. Coaches and classmates also knew he was gay well before today. Multiple sources have told Sports Illustrated that Sam strongly considered making an announcement late last summer and was willing to play his senior season as an openly homosexual athlete. (He decided against it at the last minute.)
Word of Sam's intentions to come out spread beyond Mizzou. Last month, an SI writer approached Sam at the Senior Bowl and asked whether he would like to collaborate on a piece about his sexuality. Sam politely demurred, but he hardly appeared troubled or surprised by the inquiry. He assured the writer that it was okay that he had asked and added matter-of-factly, "It's going to be a big deal no matter who I do it with."
It's telling, too, that no one in Sam's orbit "outed" him, enabling him to tell his story on his terms and timetable. At some level this is a story about a generation gap. Sam and his cohort were raised in the era of Will & Grace and Modern Family, not The Brady Bunch, let alone My Three Sons. Friends, coaches and teammates all invoked the same line: It just wasn't a big deal.
"I didn't realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me," Sam told ESPN. "I want to own my truth. ... No one else should tell my story but me."
Before coming out to all his teammates and coaches, Sam said he told a few close friends and dated another Missouri athlete who was not a football player.
"Coaches just wanted to know a little about ourselves, our majors, where we're from, and something that no one knows about you," Sam said. "And I used that opportunity just to tell them that I was gay. And their reaction was like, 'Michael Sam finally told us.'"
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement Sunday night he was proud of Sam and how he represented the program.
"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 orientation, we're all on the same team and we all support each other," Pinkel said. "If Michael doesn't have the support of his teammates like he did this past year, I don't think there's any way he has the type of season he put together."
Missouri linebacker Donovan Bonner has been a teammate of Sam's for five years.
"We knew of his status for 5 years and not one team member, coach, or staff member said anything says a lot about our family atmosphere," Bonner tweeted.
As for where Sam will get drafted, consider that he is the 11th man to win the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award. Each of the previous 10 winners was drafted prominently, eight in the first round. If Sam is not drafted, LGBT football fans should protest and shout to the top of their lungs about discrimination. There is no tougher conference in the NCAA than the SEC. To be named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year is no small feat, and it shows that Sam is a great player and should be drafted by the NFL. It's time for the NFL to show that they do not discriminate because someone is out and proud. LGBT youth need to know that they have role models. As proud as I am of Conner Mertens who came out as bisexual, Sam would make a major statement as the first openly gay NFL player.
Sam is a trailblazer and, by definition, that means embarking with no map or template. Nevertheless, he has equipped himself. His team of advisors includes Howard Bragman, an L.A. publicist with experience helping celebrities come out. Sam met with Collins in L.A. and spoke to Ayanbadejo. Last week plans were also afoot to put Sam together with former NFL cornerback Wade Davis, who came out in 2012, and Robbie Rogers, the openly gay L.A. Galaxy midfielder. As more athletes come out, a community of support has formed and fortified.
This we know: All the inevitable homophobic tweets and slurs will be offset by overwhelming support. As state after state recognizes marriage equality and Google devotes its daily "doodle" to protest Russia's homophobic legislation, and even the sitting Pope appears to accept homosexuality, figures like Sam are respected far more than they're reviled. For whatever short-term grief or dissonance he may encounter; for however many NFL teams decline to draft him; for whatever catcalls he hears in stadiums and in the trenches; he will be celebrated globally.
"Any stigma is fading," said Martina Navratilova, one of the first in the lineage of openly gay athletes. "It's all becoming a question of when not if. The next when is an active gay athlete. It's happening brick-by-brick, and pretty soon, we'll have the whole house." She then took a second to chuckle in happy disbelief. "We've hit this tipping point, this flood, this ... I don't know what the term is."
Actually, there is a word for this: progress.