NFL hopeful Michael Sam comes out: Is football ready for an openly gay player?

Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, announced Sunday that he is gay. There are no openly gay players in the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB.

Brandon Wade/AP
Missouri senior defensive lineman Michael Sam speaks to the media during an NCAA football news conference in Irving, Texas. Mr. Sam told the media that he is gay on Sunday. If drafted into the NFL, he could become the first openly gay player in the league.

The announcement by Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman at the University of Missouri, that he is gay comes just as drafting season begins for the National Football League and as a national conversation about intolerance in professional sports is heating up.

If Mr. Sam is drafted into the NFL this May, his announcement – made in interviews with The New York Times and ESPN – could make him the first openly gay player in the league, a sporting giant that has so far shown little interest, if not outright resistance, to bringing openly gay players into its ranks but might now be prepared to change, some experts say.

Sam’s teammates and coaches had known he was gay since August, when he told them during a preseason training session. His teammates, who by all accounts had no problem with Sam’s sexual orientation, had kept quiet. But he decided to go public as he became aware that rumors about his sexuality were floating in NFL drafting circles, according to Outsports.

“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told The New York Times. “I just want to own my truth.”

Sam, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior, has had a strong 2013-14 season: He helped his team, the Tigers, to finish 12-2 and win the Cotton Bowl, was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, was honored as a first-team All-American, and was voted, by his teammates, as Missouri’s most valuable player.

He is, in other words, widely considered to be a likely candidate for the NFL, for which he will be eligible this spring. Analysts have said that he might be drafted as early as the third round. He'll participate in the NFL Scouting Combine Feb. 19-24 in Indianapolis, during which NFL prospects run a gauntlet of tests to gauge their readiness for the league.

But it is now unknown if Sam’s unprecedented announcement might mar his otherwise good chances of making the NFL.

There are no openly gay players in the NFL, NBA, NHL, or MLB – though that does not mean the leagues have never had, or do not currently have, gay athletes. Professional athletes have instead waited to announce their sexual orientation until leaving the sports scene.

Former NFL player Dave Kopay came out as gay in 1975, three years after he had retired from football. Jason Collins, who played in the NBA for 12 years, announced his sexual orientation in a first-person narrative for Sports Illustrated last year, only to not be signed by any team this season.

Robbie Rogers, a midfielder for MLS’s Los Angeles Galaxy, also came out after announcing his retirement, but returned to soccer in May 2013 to become the first openly gay male athlete to be signed to a team in a major US sports league.

The NFL, the hard-beating pulse of American sports, has in particular been beset with allegations that it has remained a stalwart of anti-gay culture, even as the gay rights movement has sped onward, with more states approving gay marriage and with unprecedented changes taking place in the military, another longtime bastion of hetero-normative culture.

Those allegations include reports that recruiters have in multiple instances asked prospective players if they liked women, despite the league’s official policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Chris Kluwe, ex-punter for the Minnesota Vikings, alleged last month that his team had let him go over his vocal support for same-sex marriage in California; the Vikings’ coach, he said, has built a team culture around homophobia. And last week Jonathan Vilma, a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, said he would not welcome a gay player onto his team.

Indeed, in a Sports Illustrated article published after Sam’s statement, eight anonymous NFL executives and coaches said that – in no uncertain terms – Sam’s NFL stock is projected to plummet, possibly ousting him from the draft boards altogether. 

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," an NFL player personnel assistant said in the article. "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."

On the whole, the officials quoted said that an openly gay athlete would be a “distraction,” upsetting a team’s uniformly macho culture.

"There's nothing more sensitive than the heartbeat of the locker room,” one official said. “If you knowingly bring someone in there with that sexual orientation, how are the other guys going to deal with it? It's going to be a big distraction.

“That's the reality,” the official said. “It shouldn't be, but it will be."

One official said he estimated that about "90 percent of teams" – there are 32 NFL franchises – had been aware before the public announcement that Sam was gay and had scrubbed him from their draft boards.

Still, there were high notes of optimism after Sam's announcement Sunday that the NFL might indeed be ready to bring an openly gay player into its fold.

In a statement released Sunday night, the NFL said Sam’s sexual orientation would have no bearing on his chances with the league.

“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the statement read. “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,” it said.

Twitter was also flush with support for Sam, with gay rights activists, US government officials, fans, and Missouri teammates all expressing hope that change in the sports industry could be imminent. A number of current NFL players also reacted positively on Twitter, saying they would be more than willing to have a gay player on their team.

“I could care less about a man's sexual preference! i care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!” tweeted DeAngelo Williams, a running back for the Carolina Panthers.

“There is no room for bigotry in American sports,” tweeted Malcolm Smith, Super Bowl MVP and linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. “It takes courage to change the culture.”

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