Tolerance is about to be tested in the National Football League.
And Michael Sam hopes his ability is all that matters, not his sexual orientation.
Missouri’s All-America defensive end came out to the entire country Sunday night and could become the first openly gay player in America’s most popular sport.
“I just want to go to the team who drafts me,” Sam told ESPN in an interview that aired Sunday, “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.”
Nobody has ever done this before.
In interviews with ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports, Sam said publicly for the first time that he was gay. He said he came out to his teammates and coaches at Missouri in August.
Sam will participate in the NFL combine later this month in Indianapolis and is projected to be a mid-round draft pick in May.
“Hopefully it will be the same like my locker room,” he told ESPN. “It’s a workplace. If you’ve ever been in a Division I or pro locker room, it’s a business place. You want to act professional.”
Sam received much public support Sunday night from people throughout the world of sports.
“I can’t wait to cheer for whatever lucky team that drafts (at)MikeSamFootball. Personally I hope he goes to my favorite team. The (at)Colts” tweeted Jason Collins, the pro basketball player who said publicly last season that he is gay.
There also were words of caution.
Offensive lineman Frank Garcia, who played nine seasons (1995-2003) in the NFL with the Panthers, Rams and Cardinals, said Sam could face “huge challenges” in the league.
Garcia was teammates and good friends with defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo, who announced he was gay on HBO’s Real Sports in 2002 -- three years after he left the NFL.
Garcia said although he and Tuaolo regularly hung out as teammates in Carolina in 1999, Tuaolo never once let on that he was gay.
“I think a lot of guys in the NFL are going to say they will accept it, but there are a lot of guys who won’t,” said Garcia, now a sports radio show host with WFNZ-AM in Charlotte. “The reality is Michael Sam is going to open himself up to a lot of criticism and a lot of challenges. 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. And there are some guys who have strong religious beliefs, too, so he’s going to be judged. He’s going to face some things that are going to be very difficult to overcome.”
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam participated in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month after leading the Southeastern Conference in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). He was the SEC defensive player of the year.
There have been a few NFL players who have come out after their playing days, including Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay.
Collins, a 35-year-old backup center, came out after last season when he was a free agent and was not signed this season. MLS star and U.S. national team player Robbie Rogers also came out a year ago.
“His courage will inspire millions to live their truth,” Rogers tweeted about Sam.
Division III Willamette kicker Conner Mertens, a redshirt freshman, said last month he was bisexual.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the NFL said in statement. “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.”
Sam’s announcement comes at a time gay rights and sports have collided at the Olympics in Sochi. Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law has received much attention, and criticism, because of the games.
“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,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, a leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization. “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.”
The NFL’s sexual orientation, anti-discrimination and harassment policy states:
“Coaches, General Managers and others responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player’s sexual orientation. This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest that the player’s sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him.
“Examples: Do you like women or men? How well do you do with the ladies? Do you have a girlfriend?”
Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams tweeted: “I could care less about a man’s sexual preference! i care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!”
Williams’ teammate, cornerback Drayton Florence, posted on his Twitter account: “No comment but it can be a distraction in the locker room. At least he’s open with it much respect!”
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel released the following statement late Sunday night:
“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 here first-hand 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.
We talk all the time here in our program about how one of our core values is to respect the cultural differences of others, and this certainly applies. We view ourselves as one big family that has a very diverse collection of people from all walks of life, and if you’re part of our family, we support you.
Looking back, I take great pride in how Michael and everyone in our program handled his situation. 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 very proud of Michael and the courage he has displayed for coming out. We look forward to following his career, and the success he’s going to have.”