University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam is poised to become the country’s first openly gay professional football player after he came out on Feb. 9.
Sam, 24, discussed his sexual orientation in a series of interviews with the New York Times and ESPN. The defensive linebacker is a potential mid-round pick in the National Football League draft that will take place in May.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told the New York Times. “I just want to own my truth.”
The New York Times reported Sam, who grew up in Hitchcock, Texas, came out to his teammates at the University of Missouri last August during a team-building exercise. He was named the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year after his team ended the season with a 12-2 record that included a win in the Cotton Bowl. Sam is also an All-American.
Outsports.com exclusively reported that Howard Bragman, a gay Hollywood publicist, helped coordinate Sam’s coming out that included the New York Times and ESPN interviews. The LGBT sports website noted the defensive lineman’s agents – Joe Barkett and Cameron Weiss – said they concluded it would “be less of a distraction” for Sam to come out this month as opposed to “after the draft, during summer training camp or during the season.”
Sam attended a dinner at Bragman’s Los Angeles home on Feb. 8 – one day before he spoke with the aforementioned media outlets. Gay former NFL players Dave Kopay and Wade Davis, gay former professional baseball player Billy Bean, former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe and Outsports.com co-founders Jim Buzinski and Cyd Zeigler, Jr., also attended.
Outsports.com said Buzinski “grilled him” during a practice interview earlier in the day.
Bragman, Barkett and Weiss critiqued his answers.
“When the topic was football he knew what to say, sharing playing experiences and his love of defense,” reported Outsports.com, noting Sam also shared details of his troubled childhood that included abuse he said he suffered at the hands of his brothers and losing three siblings. “When questions turned to gay issues in that mock interview, Sam worked through the answers.”
The NFL applauded Sam in a statement it released shortly after the New York Times and ESPN published their interviews.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” said the league. “We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and other university officials also praised Sam – students honored the defensive lineman by writing his name in the snow in the school’s football stadium on Feb. 9. Denver Broncos Vice President John Elway and Hall of Famer Deion Sanders are among the former and current NFL players who also applauded Sam.
“Good for him,” said Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith on Twitter.
President Obama and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) are among those who also applauded Sam.
“Michael Sam has made a historic and courageous decision to live his authentic truth for the world to see,” said National Black Justice Coalition CEO Sharon Lettman-Hicks in a press release that announced an online campaign with Athlete Ally designed to rally additional support for the defensive lineman. “Sam continues the tradition of breaking down barriers for not only LGBT athletes who dream of playing professional sports, but all LGBT people, young and old, who seek to live openly, honestly and safely in their neighborhoods and communities.”
Team D.C. President Les Johnson echoed Lettman-Hicks.
“He’s done a very brave thing,” Johnson told the Washington Blade on Tuesday.
Sam came out nearly a year after former Washington Wizards center Jason Collins became the first male athlete who actively played in a major American professional sports league to come out as gay. Robbie Rogers, a professional soccer player who plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy, disclosed his sexual orientation last February before returning to the sport after a brief retirement.
“Congratulations on leading the way,” wrote Collins on his Twitter account after Sam came out. “That’s real sportsmanship.”
Football ‘not ready’ for openly gay player
Reaction to Sam’s coming out has not been universally positive.
Kent University on Monday indefinitely suspended wrestler Sam Wheeler after he repeatedly used anti-gay slurs in a series of tweets that criticized Sam.
An anonymous NFL player personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated he feels “football is not ready for [an openly gay player] just yet” and an out teammate would “chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.” An NFL assistant coach who also did not give his name told the magazine Sam’s announcement was “not a smart move.”
The NFL officials with whom Sports Illustrated spoke said the defensive lineman’s decision to come out would have an adverse impact on his ranking ahead of May’s draft. Sam’s CBS draft ranking on Feb. 10 was 70 spots lower than it was before the New York Times and ESPN published their interviews.
Sam’s father, Michael Sam, Sr., also reacted negatively to his son’s decision.
The older Sam told the New York Times his son told him in a text message while he was celebrating his birthday at a Denny’s outside of Dallas.
“I couldn’t eat no more, so I went to Applebee’s to have drinks,” said Sam’s father. “I don’t want my grandkids raised in that kind of environment.”
“I’m old school,” he added, noting he took one of his older sons to Mexico to lose his virginity. “I’m a man-and-a-woman type of guy.”
Concerns are ‘poppycock’
Zeigler told the Blade on Tuesday that he expected some to react negatively to Sam’s announcement. He nevertheless described them as “idiots” and categorized their concerns as “poppycock.”
“He was openly gay on the University of Missouri football team that went 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl,” said Zeigler. “The only way [the NFL] is different from college is the men are older, more experienced. They know more people who are gay.”
The Ravens, the New York Giants, the New England Patriots, the Minnesota Vikings and the Cleveland Browns are among the NFL teams that have said they would draft Sam.
“If it’s a distraction to the team that’s not on Michael Sam or because he is gay,” Zeigler told the Blade. “It’s because of bad leadership on the team.”
The Human Rights Campaign on Monday tweeted a picture of Sam and a link to its blog. Stampp Corbin, the former co-chair of the National LGBT Leadership Council for Obama’s 2008 presidential election campaign who publishes a gay newspaper in San Diego, launched a petition on Change.org that urges the NFL to draft the defensive lineman.
“Michael is a football player, not an activist,” Bragman told Outsports.com. “If you start showing up at too many dinners and too many parades, you start to send the message to a potential team about his priorities. The community wins when he steps onto an NFL field and plays in a game, not as the grand marshal of a pride parade.”
Zeigler told the Blade that Bragman told HRC, GLAAD and other groups about Sam’s pending announcement. He said Bragman also told the aforementioned organizations the defensive linebacker “needs to focus on football.”
“Until next February I hope I don’t hear a single question from an LGBT advocacy organization to appear,” said Zeigler. “His advocacy is to be on the football field and break ground in that way.”
Chris Johnson contributed to this report.