We’ve heard rumors for some time that there was a coalition of NFL players who were ready to publicly come out as gay. That hasn’t happened yet, but an NFL early draft prospect and University of Missouri graduate, Michael Sam, 24, has come out. Sam, a defensive lineman, is an early round draft pick and is about to become the first openly gay NFL player.
In interviews with ESPN and The NY Times, Sam explained that he came out to his team in August, 2013, and that his team rallied around him and supported him. To the NY Times, he said “I knew at the time that this can happen anywhere. If my team can support me, any team can support me.” Sam also made it clear that he didn’t want “to be defined as a gay athlete. I want to be defined for being a great person [with] great character.” He added “I may be the first, but I won’t be the last.”
On ESPN, Sam explained that he had a difficult childhood marred by tragedy. He said that his oldest brother was killed by a gunshot wound, that his older sister died as a baby, and that his second oldest brother “went missing in 1998.” Sam and another sister “were the last ones to see him and we pronounced him dead two years later.” His other two brothers are “currently both in jail.” To Sam, telling people he’s gay is “nothing compared” to the hardships he’s endured. I found his story, and the way he explained it, very powerful. He said “I could be dead, but I made a choice from a young age that I didn’t want to follow my brothers… I knew that I wanted to have some success so my family could be proud of me.”
When asked how he feels about possibly being the first openly gay player in the NFL, Sam said “I don’t really look at it that way. I’m Michael Sam and I’m a football player. I want to be a football player in the NFL. I understand that this is a big deal, but I know what I want to be and I want to play in the NFL.”
Sam explained that he decided to come out now because it was common knowledge that he was gay, after he had come out to his team last year. He said he was afraid “it would leak out without me actually owning my truth. I wanted to let the world know, hey I’m gay. Let me tell my own story.”
He added “I never focus on what people stay in the stands… my entire focus is on the game. I don’t let things like that distract me…. if I work hard, if I make plays, that’s all that should matter.”
I was so impressed by Sam’s interviews, how well he explained why he chose to come out, and what that means to him in the context of his career and in the broader context of the NFL. So many other people are impressed with him too, and countless NFL players and athletes have come out to support him. I do think Sam is right, he’s not going to be the last player to come out.
Incidentally, a college football player for Willamette University in Oregon has come out as bisexual. Conner Mertens, a 19 year-old starter kicker and Freshman, made the announcement to his team two weeks ago. They were overwhelmingly supportive. Mertens is thought to be the first college football player to come out while still playing.
I heard on Fox Sports Live that “as of now, there is no openly gay player in the NHL, NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball.” Jason Collins, a former NBA player, came out last year.
Here’s Michael Sam’s statement to the NY Times:
And here’s his interview with ESPN: