National Football League (NFL) prospect Michael Sam’s announcement that he is gay sparked an outpouring of support on Monday, along with questions as to how it might affect his fledgling career.
The groundbreaking revelation by the University of Missouri football defensive standout — in interviews with ESPN and the New York Times on Sunday — means that he could become the first openly gay player in the hugely popular NFL.
US President Barack Obama, US first lady Michelle Obama and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player Malcolm Smith of the Seattle Seahawks were among the many who used Twitter to praise Sam’s candor in the face of an NFL culture long perceived to be hostile to homosexuality.
“Congratulations on leading the way, @MikeSamFootball,” a message on Obama’s official Twitter feed said. “That’s real sportsmanship.”
Michelle Obama called Sam “an inspiration to all of us.”
However, how well Sam will be received by the league remains to be seen, as Smith’s tweet recognized.
“There is no room for bigotry in American sports,” wrote Smith, the Seahawks linebacker who returned an interception for a touchdown and recovered a fumble to set up another in Seattle’s 43-8 rout of Denver in Super Bowl 48 earlier this month.
“It takes courage to change the culture,” he added.
Sam’s revelation is also to test the courage of NFL team executives in May’s draft of new talent.
At the University of Missouri last season, Sam led the powerful Southeastern Conference with 11.5 quarterback sacks and 19 tackles for a loss of yards. The Tigers fell to Auburn in the title game, but finished the season 12-2 and won the prestigious Cotton Bowl.
Projected to be taken as early as the third round in the draft, Sam could find his stock has fallen come May.
One unnamed NFL player personnel assistant told Sports Illustrated that the game was not yet ready for an openly gay player, with an NFL scout telling the magazine that the revelation “is going to drop him down” in the draft.
Even bigger than the fear that an openly gay player could upset the “chemistry” of the locker room, is the fear that added media attention could distract players from their game.
Sam’s agent, Joe Barkett, told NFL AM radio on Monday that Sam had originally planned to keep his sexual orientation private until after the draft, but when they learned that some NFL team executives and scouts were aware of it he decided to go public “so he could take control of the situation instead of being forced to tell his story after somebody else had broken it.”
As of Monday, the strategy was looking sound as several NFL teams, including the New England Patriots and New York Giants, released statements supporting Sam.
“Our sport is the ultimate meritocracy,” Giants co-owner John Mara said. “If you can play, you can play. Michael’s announcement will not affect his position on our draft board.”
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told the Boston Herald that his only consideration in evaluating Sam as a potential Patriot would be from a sports standpoint.
“We’re about winning,” Kraft told the newspaper. “And anyone who can come in here and help us win, I personally don’t care what their ethnic background is, their racial background, the gender preference. If they can help us win and they’re about team first, then I’m happy to have him here.”