The headline—a minor celebrity comes out as gay—isn’t new, but Michael Sam is different.
The 6-feet-3-inch, 260-pound defensive lineman from the University of Missouri was the Associated Press’ Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. Sam plans to enter the National Football League draft in May and could become the first openly gay player in the NFL, and one of the first in American professional sports. Washington Wizards pro basketball player Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran who came out last April, was the first openly gay professional male athlete in the country.
Sam, 24, made the announcement Sunday through ESPN’s Outside the Lines and The New York Times, though his teammates and coaches at Missouri knew in August. Looking to the draft, he told ESPN the team he wants is simple. “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,” Sam said. “That’s the team I want to go to.”
Sam’s talent will be the NFL’s first consideration, the league affirmed in a statement Sunday evening. “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.”
But the biggest concern—at least for Sam and his supporters—is how he will be treated in an NFL locker room. New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, for example, told the NFL Network last week that he would feel uncomfortable dressing next to a gay player. “You know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine [yards]—and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?” Vilma said.
Offensive lineman Frank Garcia, who played nine seasons (1995-2003) in the NFL, said Sam could face “huge challenges” in the league. “Those are challenges most gay people have to go through, but when you are dealing with alpha males and some meatheads in an NFL locker room, it’s amplified,” Garcia said. “And there are some guys who have strong religious beliefs, too, so he’s going to be judged.”
That’s partly why Sam decided to speak out after the Senior Bowl two weeks ago, Sam told ESPN. Many people already seemed to know, he said, and he didn’t want a leak to release his decision. “I want to own my truth,” he said. “No one else should tell my story but me."
That story isn’t an easy one. Sam is the seventh of eight children who grew up outside Houston, Texas. Three of his siblings are dead, two are in prison. “I endured so much in my past,” he told ESPN. “Telling the world I’m gay is nothing compared to that.” He said he was uncertain about his attractions growing up and didn’t tell anyone until he got to Missouri. “I knew from a young age that I was attracted to guys,” he told ESPN. “I didn’t know if it was a phase. … I wanted to find who I was and make sure I knew what was comfortable.”
He let his team know during preseason camp in August. Sam told the Times he had the full support of everyone from teammates to administrators. Some teammates went with him to gay bars, he said, and another went with him to a St. Louis gay pride event.
Pat Ivey, Missouri’s associate athletic director for athletic performance, told the Times not everyone took it in stride: “I think there were, just like in society, there are people who don’t understand, and don’t want to understand, and aren’t accepting. And we worked through those issues.” Ivey didn’t discuss who those players were or the details of their beliefs.
Sam could be a challenge not only to the NFL culture of machismo, but also to well-known Christians in the NFL who give God the glory for their talent and success. The Seattle Seahawks just won the Super Bowl, bringing a spotlight to that locker room’s camaraderie at a personal and spiritual level. Six Seattle players and coaches have intentionally used the NFL platform together to spread the gospel. And because of their newfound fame, the media may soon beat a path to their door with some tough questions. How accepting teammates and media will be of their religious beliefs remains to be seen.
“Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others,” Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement Sunday night. “He’s taught a lot of people here 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.”
Once he gets to the league, will that respect go both ways?