The visual was stunning. There for all the (sports) world to see on ESPN stood Michael Sam, crying onto his boyfriend’s shoulder and kissing him repeatedly after learning he had been drafted to the NFL by the St. Louis Rams. It was a shocking scene even for me, a very proud gay man who has been out since before Sam was born. We gays have been making huge strides as of late. State and federal judges have overturned gay marriage bans here in Michigan as well as in Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia and Texas, all but ensuring that the Supreme Court will take up the issue in their next session. But a gay man making an entrance into the NFL, now that’s something we’ve never seen before.
Sam could have waited until after being drafted to come out, but that’s not how he rolls. He’s a brave man and, clearly, a man of integrity. When he learned that several scouts knew about his sexual orientation, he decided to make a public announcement so that any team interested in him would hear the news directly from his mouth.
“I was afraid that it would leak out without me actually owning my truth,” Sam told ESPN’s Chris Connelly in February. “I wanted to let the world know and tell them that, ‘Hey, I’m gay. Let me tell my own story.'”
That story went instantly global with pundits weighing in from every angle. Though many said there was no room for an openly-gay player in the league, the NFL took the high road from the start.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” NFL senior vice president of communications Greg Aiello 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.”
Then came the NFL Scouting Combine. At the week-long showcase where college football players perform physical and mental tests in front of the NFL coaches and general managers, Sam failed to impress. This caused many to speculate whether he would be drafted at all, which opened up a new can of public relations worms. If he wasn’t, it would give the appearance that coming out had cost him and that the NFL was intolerant.
Tensions mounted as the draft began, especially after right wing Washington, DC lobbyist Jack Burkman vowed to unleash a “relentless” boycott against any team that chose to draft him. Nevertheless, Sam was drafted on day three in the seventh and final round – the 249th pick overall – by the Rams.
“I don’t have any concern whatsoever,” Rams coach Jeff Fisher told NFL Media columnist Michael Silver after the pick was announced. “We drafted a good football player. I’m excited to get him on the practice field and get him going. So yeah, there’s gonna be a little extra tension for a couple days, but Michael was the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.”
It’s worth noting that the last seven SEC Defensive Players of the Year were taken in the first round, while Sam almost went undrafted. But being a seventh round draft pick is better than not being picked at all. And St. Louis might very well be a good fit for Sam. He’s played the past four years for the University of Missouri in Columbia, a mere two hours away, so he already has support in the state.
Sam took to his Twitter account shortly after he received the news.
“Thank you to the St. Louis Rams and the whole city of St. Louis,” he tweeted. “I’m using every ounce of this to achieve greatness.”
So now we wait and see if he can do just that: achieve greatness. Being drafted does not actually guarantee he will make the Rams. That depends on how well he does at the rookie mini-camps that will follow. These camps are basically extended tryouts for new players hoping to make the roster. But not all do. Michael Sam is the first openly-gay man ever to have been drafted to the NFL. Will he become the first openly-gay man to actually play for the NFL? Time will tell.
In the meantime, we LGBTs celebrate this initial victory. All the national gay groups have acknowledged Sam’s accomplishment and alluded to what it means for our community.
“We congratulate Michael Sam and the St. Louis Rams on their terrific decision to draft him,” said Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin. “Today, LGBT young people can look to Sam as proof that being open and proud of who you are doesn’t keep you from achieving your dreams. Gay people are our neighbors and friends. They’re our United States senators and, starting today, they’re our professional football stars.”
The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation shared similar thoughts.
“Without a doubt, this is a game changer,” said GLAAD President and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis. “Today, Michael Sam has redefined what it takes to be a champion. He’s tackled stereotypes and joins the ranks of athletic trailblazers like Jason Collins and Brittney Griner in showing Americans that there’s no place for homophobia on the field. As support for equality continues to surge, it’s clear that sports fans are ready, football is ready and America is ready for its first openly gay NFL player.”
If the statements seem a bit grandiose, consider this one by a Sam fan from Washington, D.C.
“The President congratulates Michael Sam, the Rams and the NFL for taking an important step forward in our nation’s journey,” the White House said in a statement released Sunday. “From the playing field to the corporate boardroom, LGBT Americans prove every day that you should be judged by what you do and not who you are.”
That’s all that Sam has asked for, and no less than he deserves.