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, Sam set himself on a path to become the first publicly gay player in the NFL.
“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 spoke publicly about his sexual orientation.
Sam, a senior listed at 6 feet 2 inches and 260 pounds, went on to a stellar season for Missouri, which finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was named a first-team All-American. He was the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football. Teammates voted him Missouri’s most valuable player.
Now Sam enters an uncharted area of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.
As the pace of the gay rights movement has accelerated drastically in recent years, the sports industry has seen relatively little change, with no publicly gay male athletes in the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, or MLB. Against this backdrop, Sam could become a symbol for the country’s gay rights movement or a flashpoint in a football culture war — or both.
Sam, 24, is projected to be chosen in the early rounds of the NFL draft in May, ordinarily an invitation to a prosperous professional career. He said he decided to come out publicly now because he sensed that rumors were circulating.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” said Sam, who also spoke with ESPN. “I just want to own my truth.”
But the NFL presents the potential for unusual challenges. In the past year or so, the league has been embroiled in controversies ranging from anti-gay statements from players to reports that scouts asked at least one prospective player if he liked girls.
In a statement Sunday night, the NFL 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.”
Although Sam’s professional prospects are far from certain, several NFL draft forecasters have predicted that he will be chosen in the third round. Rarely are players who are drafted that high cut by teams, and often they become starters, sometimes in their rookie year.
Between now and the draft, Sam plans to attend the scouting combine, where players are put through a gantlet of physical and mental tests to judge their readiness for the NFL. Sam might be considered too small for a professional defensive end, meaning he would have to learn to play as an outside linebacker.
“I’m not naïve,” Sam said. “I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the NFL.”