In a New York Times interview Sunday, University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam admitted to the world: “I’m an openly gay man.” Why is this development so important? Sam is currently a highly-touted prospect in the National Football League (NFL) draft. He becomes the first publicly gay athlete in any of the Big 4 sports drafts.
In December 2013, The Associated Press named Sam the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year. He was also selected as one of 10 unanimous first-team all-Americans. He led the SEC in both sacks and tackles-for-loss and resides in the top 10 nationally in Division I in those categories.
The New York Times reported:
Coaches at the University of Missouri divided players into small groups at a preseason football practice last year for a team-building exercise. One by one, players were asked to talk about themselves — where they grew up, why they chose Missouri and what others might not know about them.
As Michael Sam, a defensive lineman, began to speak, he balled up a piece of paper in his hands. “I’m gay,” he said. With that, Mr. Sam set himself on a path to become the first publicly gay player in the National Football League.
“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out,” Sam said Sunday in an interview with the New York Times, the first time he had spoken publicly about his sexual orientation.
“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 Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) President Sarah Kate Ellis. “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.”
Before his announcement, Sam’s publicist Howard Bragman introduced to him to athletes including openly gay former NFL players Dave Kopay and Wade Davis Jr., openly gay NBA player Jason Collins, openly gay former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean, as well as outspoken straight allies and former NFL players Brendan Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe. This is the fifth professional athlete that Bragman has taken out of the closet, along with more than a dozen celebrities.
Sam is the latest high-profile athlete to come out as LGBT with others including the NBA’s Jason Collins, the WNBA’s Brittney Griner, WWE’s Darren Young, UFC’s Liz Carmouche, MMA’s Fallon Fox and Major League Soccer’s Robbie Rogers.
“Michael is first and foremost a talented football player, and his humility and heart will reshape the way that Americans think about LGBT people and the sports world,” said Wade Davis, Jr., a gay former NFL player and Executive Director of LGBT sports organization You Can Play. “His story sends a message to LGBT young people, especially young black men, that you are free to show up in the world as your authentic self and others will embrace you. When I came out after playing in the NFL, I felt the support from fans, teammates and the league and I know he will be embraced and continue to inspire.”
In an NFL document released in April 2013, the NFL defined its equal employment opportunity policy as: “It is the policy of the National Football League to provide equal employment opportunities to all employees and applicants for employment without regard to race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation or other status protected by applicable federal, state or local law.”
In the document, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell also stated: “The NFL has a long history of valuing diversity and inclusion. Discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation is not consistent with our values and is unacceptable in the National Football League.”
The NFL added sexual orientation to its list of protected classes in September 2011.