Missouri defensive end Michael Sam certainly isn't the first U.S. athlete to announce he is gay — last year, NBA free agent Jason Collins did the same, as did Robbie Rogers, who currently plays for Major League Soccer's L.A. Galaxy — though Sam's case is different in that he revealed his sexual orientation before beginning his professional career. And according to some that cover the NFL, that career could be a successful one.
Sam was a standout for the Tigers, developing from a relatively unheralded recruit into one of the most formidable defensive stars in the country. Playing in the Southeastern Conference — widely regarded as the best in all of college football — he capped off a stellar senior season by being named the conference's co-defensive player of the year and a consensus All American.
Yet, despite those accolades, some pro scouts don't think his physical attributes will translate to the NFL ... to say nothing of the intangibles surrounding him. Sam will get to answer the physical questions later this month, when he showcases his skills at the annual NFL combine, but he will never truly get to address the impact his sexuality may have on an NFL locker room (some have expressed concern that the league still isn't ready for an openly gay player). Though those who have covered him during college seem to think he'll be ready on both counts.
"This was out there on messageboards back in 2012, and in Columbia [Missouri], his sexuality was a fairly open secret; the reporters who covered the team knew about it," Andy Staples, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated said. "The most interesting part to me is that the team didn't say anything to anyone. Sam was obviously a very respected teammate. And that's the thing people don't get about football players; people think they're all bunch of troglodytes; but they respect guys who can play. And he can play.
"In college, he put on 35 pounds of muscle ... from what his coaches have said, he put in a lot of hard work on technique, made very sure he was giving maximum effort on every play," Staples continued. "And that's hard to do on the defensive line. Imagine having a 320-pound guy beating on you as you sprint up field, hard for ten yards, and then when the play goes past you, turning and sprinting the other position. And then, you get down 20 seconds later and do it again."
And while it would be easy to view Sam strictly through the analytical prism of the NFL — most scouts seem to think he's too small to play defensive end, and would have to switch to another position at the next level — everyone who covers the game knows that's not just the case. Fair or not, in the lead-up to the NFL Draft, his sexual orientation will be discussed ad nauseum ... and, if he actually is selected by a pro team, the next chapter of the story will begin.
"Talking to people around the league last night — players, executives — everyone wants to say that Michael Sam will fit in seamlessly, that this won't impact his draft stock, that players will accept him as his teammates did last year at Missouri. And I think the NFL is more ready than it's ever been for this type of a moment," Tom Pelissero, NFL writer for USA Today Sports added. "Having said that, it is still new ground; he is going into uncharted waters here. Domonique Foxworth, the NFLPA president and former NFL cornerback, put it to me this way last night: 'We learned a lot about football players based on how Sam was treated at Missouri last year, and very soon we're going to learn something about the NFL.'"
Will the NFL embrace an openly gay athlete? And is Sam ready for the crush of media attention that will follow him throughout his career? We can only speculate on both counts, though ultimately, his fate may be determined by a factor beyond his control: the harsh economics of the league, which makes winning at any cost an impossibility.
"Eighty to ninety percent of the league is relatively interchangeable. Just look at the way the team's salary caps are structured; you're going to have a few players making a ton of money, and then a lot of the other guys are going to be packed pretty tightly together," Pelissero said. "When it boils down to it, ultimately all the NFL players care about — and this is oversimplifying things — is making money. They want to make the maximum amount of money possible, because their careers are very short, and whether you're black, white, gay, straight, atheist, Christian, all anybody cares about is 'Are you going to make me a better football player?'"
And if he is able to do that, Sam could have a successful career ahead of him. But he also has the talent and the work ethic to become the NFL's first openly gay superstar ... and, if that happens, perhaps one day something as trivial as an athlete's sexual orientation might not cause a national debate. But first things first: Sam has cleared one very important personal hurdle by coming out; there are still plenty of obstacles standing in his way.
"It's a very important step towards this not being a story anymore. Because somebody was going to have to come out, and, if Michael Sam gets drafted, gets into the NFL, plays in the NFL, the next guy who comes out, it's not nearly as big of a story," Pelissero said. "He's paved the way; you have active NFL players who are gay, I guarantee it, and you have other NFL draft prospects who are gay, and it will be that much easier [for them] if he's able to get through this. You need somebody who's a strong, tough-minded individual to get through some things, to hear some things they're not going to like. But if one person can get through it, it's a lot easier for one, two, three, four more guys to get through it next year. And eventually, you'll get to a point where it's not even part of the conversation."