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Michael Sam breaks longstanding barrier by announcing he is gay

Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Michael Sam, an All-America and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, is preparing for the '14 NFL draft.

Sports are such an intrinsic part of American society that some of the biggest moments have become intertwined with our nation's history. You don't have to be a baseball fan to recognize footage of Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio. You don't have to be a hockey fan to remember the Miracle on Ice.

But the events that truly transcend sports are the ones that change the face of our culture. It's not presumptuous to suggest Michael Sam's decision to announce he is gay will become one of those seminal moments. It's a certainty.

It's extraordinarily important news that a recent college football star -- a first-team All-America selection and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year -- came out on Sunday and may soon become the first openly gay player in the NFL. In fact, it could be a momentous step on the long road toward the not-too-distant day when a person's sexuality is no longer considered news at all.

"I'm not afraid of who I am," Sam said in an interview with ESPN. "I'm not afraid to tell the world who I am. I'm Michael Sam, I'm a college graduate, I'm African-American and I'm gay."

All the openly gay athletes before Sam made their own courageous decisions to come out, with 12-year NBA veteran Jason Collins' Sports Illustrated story last year serving as a landmark for major professional sports. But football dwarfs all other sports in popularity. It's also a bastion for deeply entrenched homophobia, as evidenced by the initial reaction to Sam's announcement from several NFL executives who spoke to SI's Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans. "In the coming decade or two, [an openly gay player] is going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game," said an NFL player personnel assistant. "To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."

WERTHEIM: Michael Sam, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, says he is gay

It's no wonder, then, that generations of gay players have come and gone through the NFL unable to be open about their sexuality. Just last year, Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman reported that at least one gay player had fully planned to make a public declaration. Former Baltimore Ravens linebacker and gay rights advocate Brendan Ayanbadejo said last spring that he believed four current players were considering coming out. Still, no announcements came to pass. "Quite simply," wrote Freeman, "teams remain terrified of signing an openly gay player."

Instead, a 24-year-old prospective rookie will become the first to challenge that theory. While former NFL players like David Kopay and Wade Davis came out when their respective careers were over, Sam does so at the beginning, meaning his reception to the league will play out in real time. Sam's story will resonate on football's most visible stage.

Last season's Sunday Night Football broadcasts averaged 21 million viewers. If an NFL team drafts Sam, he could well play in one or more of those games next fall. As the broadcasters inevitably tell his story, Sam could serve as a role model for any viewers who've felt they must live in secrecy.

But first, Sam, a projected mid-round pick, must go through the draft evaluation process, beginning with the all-important NFL Combine in Indianapolis from Feb. 22-25. That makes the timing of Sam's announcement both admirable and risky. Remember, this is the event where the football lifers who run franchises pick apart early twentysomethings they've never met. This is the event that last year, in the wake of the Manti Te'o fake girlfriend hoax, then-prospect Nick Kasa, now a tight end for the Oakland Raiders, said a team asked in his interview: "Do you like girls?" The NFL executives interviewed by SI universally believed Sam's draft stock will dip. "There's no question about it," said one veteran scout.

Unfortunately, there are probably certain teams that will eliminate Sam from consideration -- not necessarily because he's gay, but because of institutionalized fears that some players won't accept him as a teammate. Other franchises may want to avoid the media onslaught that's sure to descend on whatever franchise selects him. Cameras from every national network will be on hand to document Sam's first day of mini-camp, first training camp practice, first exhibition and first game. Teammates will be interviewed about playing with a gay teammate, with reporters waiting to pounce on the first one who reacts like Chris Culliver.

KING: Michael Sam comes out as gay before the 2014 NFL draft

But this was always going to happen. It needed to happen. We need to find out, once and for all, if this longstanding paranoia over how players will treat an openly gay teammate is real or overblown. Sam may be risking his professional livelihood to be that guinea pig. Hopefully, there's a team out there in need of a dynamic pass rusher that becomes too enamored with Sam's talent to let fear dictate its decision. Even better, perhaps an owner will embrace the opportunity for his franchise to serve as a model for acceptance.

"It shouldn't matter," Sam said of his sexuality. "If I work hard, if I make plays, that's all that should matter."

Whatever is the case, Sam can pursue his desired profession without having to live his off-field life in secrecy. Ideally, other current and future players facing the same decision will feel comfortable following his lead. Whether they come out a week from now, a year from now or several years from now, Sam has broken a barrier. It's just the latest of many that needed to fall.

Chuck Culpepper, a widely respected writer for Sports on Earth who is openly gay, recently marveled at "the bullet-train change in the national feelings on the issue," since returning to the U.S. in 2012 after spending six years abroad. While same-sex marriage continues to be a divisive and highly politicized issue, polls show public support for legalization has skyrocketed over the past 15 years. Gay television and movie characters have become a common and accepted staple of popular shows. And all manner of public figures in a wide variety of professions are openly gay.

But football culture has remained that elusive outpost assumed to be unwelcoming. It's hardly a wonder why. Last year's Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin bullying scandal reinforced the ugliest stereotypes about player behavior, with recently released text exchanges showing Incognito jokingly chastising Martin as "gay." Last December, Colorado State suspended assistant coach Greg Lupfer after cameras caught him calling Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday a "faggot" during a sideline confrontation in the New Mexico Bowl. And former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe told Deadspin that special teams coach Mike Priefer repeatedly made anti-gay comments after Kluwe became an outspoken marriage-equality advocate; Kluwe believes the Vikings released him last year because of his activism.

However, today's NFL players came of age during a far more open-minded era than most coaches, scouts, general managers and owners. The majority are likely far more accepting than many might assume. Last month, Conner Mertens, a freshman kicker for Division III Willamette University in Salem, Ore., came out as bisexual with no reported retaliation. And Sam told his own Missouri teammates he is gay last summer and garnered universal support.

Sam will likely endure some ugliness, particularly from hostile fans. Bigotry toward the LGBT community will hardly be erased overnight, in part because that bigotry is still embraced by various politicians and religious leaders. At this very moment, the Olympics are taking place in a country with an openly homophobic government.

But in this country, at least, the day is fast approaching when bigotry based on sexual orientation will be as widely condemned as bigotry based on race. This era of "bullet-train change" we're living in will one day be recounted in history books, and Michael Sam just ensured his name will be prominently featured.

WERTHEIM: Q&A with Missouri star and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam

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