Michael Sam was brave; an NFL team will have to be equally so
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After 12 seasons and 713 NBA appearances, Jason Collins came out the closet.
He hasn’t played in the league since.
For all his courage — courage that should be celebrated — Michael Sam is taking a risk here, calculated or otherwise. The former Missouri football All-American, the most decorated defensive player in America’s most decorated football conference, revealed his sexual orientation in interviews with the New York Times and ESPN.
"I am an openly, proud gay man," Sam said. "I understand how big this is. 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."
Collins was 35, at the tail end of a solid, if unspectacular, career.
Sam is 24, gay, and in the prime of his football life.
And there it is. No more whispers, no more secrets, no more closets.
Before Sunday, the biggest knock — publicly — on Sam by the draftniks was his size (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) and whether he projected better as a 4-3, hand-up outside linebacker, or a 3-4, hand-down, pass-rushing type. Could he cover slot receivers? Was he strong enough to bull-rush a good NFL left tackle?
Now the conversation about strength takes on a whole new tenor, an entirely new context.
"There will be negativity, negative reactions," Sam said. "I just want to go to the team who drafts me, because that team knows about me, knows that I’m gay, and also knows that I work hard. That’s the team I want to go to."
The Tigers knew. The Hitchcock, Texas, native informed his teammates this past August, during a team-building exercise.
"I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out," Sam told the Times.
Sam was the subject of interview requests by the media most, if not every, Monday during a historical season in which he helped the Tigers win their first-ever SEC East title in just their second season in the football-mad conference. Mizzou capped a 12-2 campaign with a 41-31 victory over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl — a win sealed by Sam’s sack-strip of Cowboys quarterback Clint Chelf.
What’s interesting in hindsight is that after the opening of fall camp, Sam largely declined interview requests until December, for reasons that seem much clearer now — especially from a public relations standpoint.
"Looking back, I take great pride in how Michael and everyone in our program handled his situation," Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement Sunday night. "This past August, Michael was very direct with the team when he decided to let everyone know that he is gay.
"We discussed how to deal with that from a public standpoint, and ultimately Michael decided that he didn’t want that to be the focal point of the season. He wanted to focus on football and not do anything to add pressure for him or for his teammates, and I think that’s a great example of the kind of person he is. We left it that whenever he felt the time was right, however he wanted to make the announcement, that we had his back and we’d be right there with him.
"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. Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others. He’s taught a lot of people 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. 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."
Of course, how an NFL franchise handles this is another matter. The Texan worked out at linebacker at the Senior Bowl last month and plans to attend the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis later this month. Sam was the best defensive end in a league that included South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Auburn’s Dee Ford; he led the SEC in sacks (11 1/2) and tackles for loss (19).
Most draft boards projected him among the top 20 rush ends available, likely to be taken sometime between rounds three and six.
After this announcement, though, who knows?
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello took to Twitter on Sunday to say that the NFL "admire(s) 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."
But it remains to be seen whether that support will be unanimous, especially inside one of the most macho dens of all — the NFL locker room, where homophobic slurs can be commonplace. In many circles, to be outspoken on the subject means becoming ostracized; former Minnesota punter Chris Kluwe, for example, recently said he’s considering legal action against the Vikings for wrongful termination because of his support of gay rights.
"I don’t think football is ready for (an openly gay player) just yet," an NFL player personnel assistant told SportsIllustrated.com. "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. To call somebody a (slur) is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
"Not that they’re against gay people," a former NFL general manager told the site. "It’s more that some players are going to look at you upside down. Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?’"
"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down," another NFL scout told SI.com. "There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?’"
Although, to be fair, breaking that ‘barrier’ didn’t seem to slow Mizzou very much, did it?
"I’m not afraid to tell the world who I am," Sam said. "I’m Michael Sam. I’m a college graduate. I’m African-American. And I’m gay. I’m comfortable in my skin."
Sam did the brave thing, fallout be damned. Now: Will an NFL team have the stones to do the same?
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.