All-American defensive end Michael Sam of the University of Missouri (Mizzou) came out as gay to his Mizzou teammates during a team building exercise during the summer of 2013. Sam earned All-American honors for his play during his senior season and figures to be a fairly hot draft prospect in the 2014 NFL draft coming up in April. On Sunday February 9, 2014 he came out to the rest of the world during an interview for ESPN's "Outside the Lines".
If he is drafted, Sam will be the only openly gay player in the NFL as a rookie. NBA veteran center Jason Collins came out in April 2013. Collins' coming out was a gutsy move on his part and a landmark event in major professional sports as he was the first active player in any of the four major professional sports leagues to do so (several retired players have revealed themselves as gay after their playing careers were over). Collins situation is quite a bit different than Sam's though as Collins was an established, journeyman player who had been around the NBA for 12 seasons when he came out.
Sam is not even at the beginning of his professional career. The potential implications of Sam's coming out publicly now should not be confused with small or medium! If Sam is drafted by a team, he still has to win over teammates, coaches, opponents, etc. If the All-American Sam goes undrafted, he will have basically smoked out the NFL and its individual franchises as still having some very deep-rooted problems with the idea of openly gay players. Does anyone doubt that Sam's representatives have the lawsuit already drawn up and ready to go if he goes undrafted?
Thus far the NFL has put a happy public face on Sam's coming out. The league's senior vice-president of communications, Greg Aiello, released a statement Sunday. It said "We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage. 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."
As far as teammates and coaches, Sam will be facing an uphill battle with many of them. It is amazing how many NFL players and coaches still have not come to terms with the idea that they have almost certainly had gay teammates on every team they've ever played on or coached.
To his credit, Sam's college coach at Mizzou, Gary Pinkel stood by Sam's decision to tell his team who he was last summer. In the "Outside the Lines" story Pinkel said of Sam "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."
Sam is also receiving a massive amount of support in one other area. As of Sunday morning before the story aired, Sam had 300-some followers on Twitter. As of Sunday night, he has more than 18,000! This a gutsy move by Sam. One that by most accounts he is not making naively. Depending on what happens during the upcoming NFL draft, Sam could wind up being the Jackie Robinson of gay athletes. He could also wind up being the Curt Flood of gay athletes. Time will tell.