In an announcement that will likely shake up professional sports, Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam came out as gay Sunday night and declared his intention to be the National Football League’s first out player.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told the Times. “I just want to own my truth.”
According to The New York Times, Sam had previously declared his sexual orientation to teammates during a team-building exercise last year at the University of Missouri, where he played for the Mizzou Tigers in Southeastern Conference Division I football.
“I’m gay,” he reportedly recalled saying on Sunday. “I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out.”
It’s unclear what will happen with Sam, a senior listed at 6-foot-2 and 260 pounds, in the aftermath of his decision to come out because no gay person has ever played in a major North American league while being open about their sexual orientation.
Sam, a Hitchcock, Texas, native, has won accolades from his performance as a college player. The Associated Press named him the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and he was selected as one of 10 unanimous first-team All-Americans.
In a statement Sunday night, the NFL praised Sam for his decision to come out and said his performance as a college player speaks for itself. In 2011, the NFL added sexual orientation to its list of protected classes.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the statement says. “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.”
LGBT advocacy groups praised Sam for making the decision to come out and said it would prove to be a milestone in sports history.
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, said the NFL hopeful has shown leadership that demonstrates he will be an exceptional football player.
“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,” Ellis said. “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.”
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Sam is “making history” and has provided “essential hope to millions of LGBT young people from the South.”
“Trailblazers like Michael are tearing down barriers to equality almost daily, and I sincerely believe that the young person who will go on to become the first openly LGBT president of the United States watches today’s news somewhere in this country and is inspired,” Griffin said.
Via Twitter, Sam confirmed his decision to come out and thanked those who helped him with his decision.
— Michael Sam (@MikeSamFootball) February 10, 2014
Sam’s announcement is along the lines of former Washington Wizards center Jason Collins’ decision last year to come out as gay in a Sports Illustrated article. Following that announcement, despite the praise he received, including from President Obama, Collins hasn’t yet been picked up by a team and remains a free agent.
The coming out decision was coordinated by Sam’s publicist Howard Bragman, who also handled the coming out announcements for Collins, openly gay former NFL players Dave Kopay and Wade Davis Jr. as well as gay former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean. He’s the fifth professional athlete that Bragman has helped come out of the closet.
At the same time that major media outlets published the news that Sam was gay, Outsports.com ran its own piece about the internal deliberations leading up to the announcement.
According to the article, Sam decided the he won’t lend his name to LGBT organizations and will simply play the sport as an openly gay man.
Cyd Zeigler, a sports journalist, said Sam has a tremendous chance of success in his bid to play in the NFL following his announcement.
“Every NFL draft expert has Sam being selected in the first to fifth round of this year’s NFL draft,” Zeigler said.