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

Monday February 10th, 2014

Missouri's Michael Sam, the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year, led the league with 11.5 sacks in 2013.
Brandon Wade/AP

Yesterday, Michael Sam was known principally as a fierce and ferocious 260-pound Missouri defensive end, the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year and a potential high-round pick in May's NFL draft. From the draftnik's notebooks: He holds the point of attack. He has a good motor. He can play 4-3 or 3-4. True, Sam played unremarkably at the Senior Bowl last month, but he was stationed for the first time at outside linebacker. His maturity -- he's already 24 -- and work ethic reside on the extreme edge of the bell curve.

Yet for all he accomplished in four years at Columbia, today Sam became known as something else, something unique in the history of football: an openly gay player on the cusp of his career. Regardless of his 40 time or his performance in the three-cone drill or his Wonderlic score, Sam is now the most intriguing prospect in the NFL. In an act that is at once courageous, unprecedented and postmodern, he has asserted that he is gay. "I'm Michael Sam. I'm a football player and I'm gay," he told The New York Times.

A year ago, NFL teams were rightfully criticized for asking potential draft picks questions on the order of "Do you have a girlfriend?" This year, Sam will save them the trouble of having to ask.

If Jason Collins demolished one barrier last year -- declaring that he was gay within days of finishing his 12th NBA season -- Sam laid ruin to another by coming out before the draft. Where Collins is a Stanford grad from Los Angeles, Sam is more than a decade younger and hails from Hitchcock, Texas (pop. 7,200). And unlike Collins -- who surprised his twin brother with his revelation -- Sam's sexuality was not a closely guarded secret at Missouri. Sam says he came out to his Missouri teammates last August. Coaches and classmates also knew he was gay well before today. Multiple sources have told SI that Sam strongly considered making an announcement late last summer and was willing to play his senior season as an openly homosexual athlete. (He decided against it at the last minute.)

THAMEL/EVANS: How will news that Michael Sam is gay affect his NFL draft stock?

Word of Sam's intentions to come out spread beyond Mizzou. Last month, an SI writer approached Sam at the Senior Bowl and asked whether he would like to collaborate on a piece about his sexuality. Sam politely demurred, but he hardly appeared troubled or surprised by the inquiry. He assured the writer that it was okay that he had asked and added matter-of-factly, "It's going to be a big deal no matter who I do it with."

It's telling, too, that no one in Sam's orbit "outed" him, enabling him to tell his story on his terms and timetable. At some level this is a story about a generation gap. Sam and his cohort were raised in the era of Will & Grace and Modern Family, not The Brady Bunch, let alone My Three Sons. Friends, coaches and teammates all invoked the same line: It just wasn't a big deal.

Michael Sam (52) was a unanimous first-team All-America selection by both the AP and the Football Writers Association of America.
Jimmy Simmons/Icon SMI

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Sam's sexuality will be a big deal in the NFL. The history is stubbornly uneven. As intensely analyzed as Sam will be, the NFL and entire Republic of Football will come under great scrutiny. When it was recently revealed that multiple key members of the 1993 Houston Oilers were gay, the response -- then and now -- was a collective shrug. "Listen, those guys that we're talking about were unbelievable teammates," said Pro Bowl linebacker Lamar Lathon. "And if you wanted to go to war with someone, you would get those guys first. Because I have never seen tougher guys than those guys." On the other hand, it was barely a year ago that 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver warned that a gay teammate wouldn't be welcome in the locker room, and barely a week ago that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma expressed concern that a gay teammate might look at him in the shower.

There were murmurs last season that four prominent NFL players were going to come out en masse, buffered by "straight allies" such as punter Chris Kluwe and ex-linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo. While the rhetoric of acceptance suggested that perhaps a football locker room wasn't the benighted cave it's been cracked up to be, the fact remains, the players never emerged. Instead? There were Kluwe's allegations that his special teams coach in Minnesota expressed a desire to "round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows." And the troubling free agency of Kerry Rhodes.

As for where Sam will get drafted, consider that he is the 11th man to win the SEC Defensive Player of the Year award. Each of the previous 10 winners was drafted prominently, eight in the first round.

Sam is a trailblazer and, by definition, that means embarking with no map or template. Nevertheless, he has equipped himself. His team of advisors includes Howard Bragman, an L.A. publicist with experience helping celebrities come out. Sam met with Collins in L.A. and spoke to Ayanbadejo. Last week plans were also afoot to put Sam together with former NFL cornerback Wade Davis, who came out in 2012, and Robbie Rogers, the openly gay L.A. Galaxy midfielder. As more athletes come out, a community of support has formed and fortified.

This we know: All the inevitable homophobic tweets and slurs will be offset by overwhelming support. As state after state recognizes marriage equality and Google devotes its daily "doodle" to protest Russia's homophobic legislation, and even the sitting Pope appears to accept homosexuality, figures like Sam are respected far more than they're reviled. For whatever short-term grief or dissonance he may encounter; for however many NFL teams decline to draft him, preferring not to deal with sexuality issues (or, in fairness, the attendant media circus); for whatever catcalls he hears in stadiums and in the trenches; he will be celebrated globally.

Consider: Barely a week after attending the State of the Union as a guest of Michelle Obama, Collins plans to spend much of Monday flying back to Washington, D.C., for a White House dinner. Suffice it to say, a year ago, he was not getting these invitations. It is the diminishing ranks of the intolerant who now reside on the margins of society and the curb of the culture.

"Any stigma is fading," said Martina Navratilova, one of the first in the lineage of openly gay athletes. "It's all becoming a question of when not if. The next when is an active gay athlete. It's happening brick-by-brick, and pretty soon, we'll have the whole house." She then took a second to chuckle in happy disbelief. "We've hit this tipping point, this flood, this ... I don't know what the term is."

Actually, there is a word for this: progress.

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

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