Former Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam says he is gay in interviews with both The New York Times and ESPN’s "Outside the Lines," meaning that if he is drafted in May, Sam could become the first publicly gay player in NFL history.
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam participated in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month after leading the SEC in sacks (11 1/2) and tackles for loss (19), and he is projected to be a mid-round NFL draft pick.
"I understand how big this is," he told ESPN. "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."
Sam, 24, is coming off a stellar season, in which he was a first-team all-American and an SEC co-defensive player of the year.
"I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me," he said. "I want to own my truth. … No one else should tell my story but me."
Reaction poured in almost instantly after the announcement, with messages of support from around the athletic community.
"We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement. "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."
The NFL itself also released a statement.
"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."
Sam’s announcement comes at a time gay rights issues and sports have collided at the Olympics in Sochi. Russia’s anti-gay law has received much attention, and criticism, because of the games.
”By rewriting the script for countless young athletes, Michael has demonstrated the leadership that, along with his impressive skills on the field, makes him a natural fit for the NFL,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, a leading lesbian gay, bisexual and transgender media advocacy organization. ”With acceptance of LGBT people rising across our coasts — in our schools, churches, and workplaces — it’s clear that America is ready for an openly gay football star.”
The NFL’s sexual orientation, anti-discrimination and harassment policy states:
Coaches, General Managers and others responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player’s sexual orientation. This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest that the player’s sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him.
Examples: Do you like women or men? How well do you do with the ladies? Do you have a girlfriend?
Sam also apparently started a Twitter account Sunday night after the announcement, thanking well-wishers with his first message.
With Sam projected by many as a middle-round prospect, chatter has already begun about how the announcement might affect his stock. By at least one account, it’s not great.
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.
Sam said many people at the Senior Bowl all-star game for NFL prospects seemed to know that he was gay.
"I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me," he 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.