Over the weekend, University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam gave a series of interviews to ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports announcing something that his coach and teammates have known since August: "I am an openly, proud gay man."
The announcement was particularly significant because Sam, an All-American who was named the Associated Press defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, was likely to be an early-round pick in this year's NFL draft — which would make him the first openly gay player in professional football history.
In his interview with the New York Times, Sam told the story of coming out during a team-building exercise at a pre-season practice. "It was not difficult for me to come out to my team," Sam said. "Everyone was just, like, shaking their head saying, 'Finally, Michael Sam came out!'"
"It's 2013, I can't tell society to agree with this or not to agree with this. But hopefully society will rally around me and support me too."
Despite the progress of the gay rights movement in recent years, there is still not a single openly gay athlete currently playing in the big four professional leagues (the NFL, the NBA, MLB and the NHL). Last April, the 12-year NBA veteran Jason Collins came out after the end of the basketball season, but hasn't been signed to a team since (he's currently a free agent). Collins tweeted this out after Sam's announcement:
For the past 2 days I have met with @MikeSamFootball here in LA. He is a great young man who has shown tremendous courage and leadership— Jason Collins (@jasoncollins34) February 10, 2014
Also last year, soccer player Robbie Rogers announced he was gay after his retirement — only to return to the sport after the positive response. He now plays for the L.A. Galaxy, and said this following Sam's announcement:
Very happy for Michael Sam. His courage will inspire millions to live their truth.— Robbie Rogers (@robbierogers) February 10, 2014
"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the NFL said in a statement. "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 no professional football player has ever come out while they were still playing in the league, a couple have done so after retirement, including Wade Davis, who said of Sam, "He's full of life, full of love, and I can't wait to watch him play." Davis is now the executive director of the You Can Play project.
Although Sam received widespread congratulations for his announcement, it's not clear what effect the move may have on his prospects in the draft. After speaking with eight NFL execs and coaches, Sports Illustrated reported that Sam may see a "significant drop" in his draft stock.
"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," an NFL personnel assistant told SI.com. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."
Over on Deadspin, Sam Magary argues that Sam risks getting shut out of the draft unless a current high-profile athlete joins him by coming out.
But not everyone thinks his coming out will be a major stumbling block. In a post on the Wall Street Journal's The Daily Fix blog, Jeremy Gordon writes, "he is a football player, and if he’s able to play football, his sexuality will be a non-issue."
At a dinner party the night before he made his announcement, Sam was asked whether he was nervous about coming out. "You all are the ones who are nervous. I’m excited."
And earlier today, he tweeted out this in reaction to the support he received from Missouri fans: