Michael Sam, a defensive end from University of Missouri, became the first openly gay NFL draft prospect when he came out publicly to Chris Connelly for ESPN on February 9.
“I am an openly, proud gay man,” Sam said to Connelly.
Sam said that although the general public was unaware of his sexual orientation until his announcement, his teammates have known since August 2013 and have been supportive of him from the beginning.
Sam also says that his coach at University of Missouri, Gary Pinkel, has been supportive of him.
When interviewed by the media on February 10, Pinkel described his reaction to Sam’s announcement.
“I said, ‘Michael, I’m really proud of you; I love you;’ and I hugged him.”
If Sam is drafted in May or gets signed by a team following the draft, he will become the NFL’s first active openly gay player. There have, however, already been a handfull of NFL players who have come out after retiring from football, including cornerback Wade Davis and running back Ray McDonald.
Wade Davis marvels at Sam’s bravery to do what he was scared to do while a NFL player.
In an article Davis wrote in February for The Monday Morning Quarterback, he remarks, “Where I had crippling doubts about how I would be received, Michael knew 100% that his teammates wouldn’t care. He says, ‘Hey, I’m gay. Next?’”
Although the NFL has never had an active openly gay player, many other sports, including basketball, have recently accepted their first openly gay athletes.
Jason Collins, now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, came out as gay in an interview with Sports Illustrated at the conclusion of the 2012-2013 NBA season. Following his announcement, NBA Commissioner David Stern and multiple NBA players including Kobe Bryant publicly supported Collins’ decision.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports published on February 24, Bryant said, “It’s fantastic. It sets an incredible precedent.”
In addition, Collins received support from President Obama. In a news conference on April 30, Obama stated, “I couldn’t be prouder of him….One of the extraordinary measures of progress that we’ve seen in this country has been the recognition that the LGBT community deserves full equality.”
When Collins signed a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets in February and subsequently played for 11 minutes against the Lakers, he officially became the first openly gay athlete in one of the four major North American sports leagues.
Collins’ jersey, number 98 in honor of hate crime victim Matthew Shepard who was murdered in 1998, is currently the best selling jersey in the NBA. In addition, the NBA has agreed to donate up to $100,000 dollars from Collins’ jersey sales to The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network and the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
However, while the NBA has been accepting of openly gay players, the NFL does not have a reputation for being a safe place for gay athletes.
One local example is San Francisco cornerback Chris Culliver’s 2012 assertion to ESPN reporter Artie Lang that he would not want to share a locker room with an openly gay player.
Beyond comments like Culliver’s, homophobic slurs have also allegedly been used in cases of severe harassment in the NFL.
Jonathan Martin, the now-49er offensive tackle who was at the center of the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal last fall, says he was harassed with homophobic slurs while a member of the Dolphins, among other things.
Some players have already expressed concern about Michael Sam joining the NFL.
In response to Sam coming out, New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said in an interview with NFL Network, “Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and, you know, I get dressed, naked, taking a shower, the whole nine, and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?”
Vilma later apologized, but there are likely still players who agree with his comment.
Still, Sam is not deterred from his goal of becoming a professional football player.
“I understand how big this is,” Sam said to 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.”
However, Sam’s risk could cost him. Despite being named the SEC All-Defensive Player of the Year and consensus All-American, Sam could go undrafted as a result of his announcement, according to a few professional NFL scouts who discussed Sam’s draft status with ESPN. This would be a huge upset given his former third-fifth round pick scouting estimation.
Eri Svenson, Chair of the LGBTQ Committee on the Board of Directors for the Community Alliance for the Ethical Treatment of Youth and former member of the Youth Advisory Council for The Trevor Project, says in a February Facebook post, “As an All-American, AP SEC Defensive Player of the Year, however, we will also know that, if [Sam] is not drafted, it was not because of lack of ability. To the NFL and its franchises: if it occurs, your discrimination will not go unnoticed.”
Although the chances of Sam going undrafted are far higher than they were prior to his announcement, some think his announcement will not damage his draft status too much.
According to ESPN writer and winner of the 2013 Hero Award from The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, LZ Granderson, “I would think there’s at least one coach who is man enough to handle a gay player in 2014.”