INDIANAPOLIS – With a rainbow button pinned to a lanyard hanging around his neck, Michael Sam ascended a platform in front of approximately 350 reporters Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, understanding full well the series of questions set to come his way.
“I wish you guys would just say, ‘Hey, Michael Sam, how’s football going? How’s training going?’” Sam said. “I would love for you to ask me that question. But it is what it is. I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam, the gay football player.”
Sam, who played at Missouri, announced earlier this month that he is gay, putting him in line to be the first gay man to play in one of the four major American sports leagues. The SEC co-defensive player of the year and a unanimous all-America defensive end, Sam is projected to be selected in the middle rounds of the NFL draft in May.
Reaction to Sam’s announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, with many current and former players showing their support for the defensive end. A variety of coaches and general managers surveyed during the NFL combine in recent days said they will evaluate Sam’s ability as a player without regard to his sexual orientation.
“It shouldn’t be that way, but you know, it is in our society,” said Missouri left tackle Justin Britt. “With something like that coming out and all the stories, you kind of expect that nowadays – for something [bad] to happen. But I was surprised how many people were for it, you know? Like, there were so many. You could rarely see any hate.”
Still, there are additional issues a team must consider before choosing to draft Sam. The recent investigation into allegations of bullying and harassment in the Miami Dolphins’ locker room has demonstrated locker rooms aren’t always welcoming. Plus, Sam will almost certainly draw a greater media following, which may cause a distraction as coaches and players inevitably grow tired of answering repeated questions about Sam’s sexual orientation.
“I think he’d be welcomed,” said New York Jets coach Rex Ryan. “It’d be no different than any other player we have. One thing I know for sure, you’re going to have 53 different players and they’re all different – different religious beliefs, what they look like, height, weight, married, single, any of these. Everybody’s different. But the main thing we talk about is respect in our locker room, and even though everybody’s different, it’s a respect thing. If the young man’s a good football player and a good teammate, that’s all we ask, so he’d fit in just like the rest of our guys.”
Sam came out to several of his closest friends early last summer, then informed the rest of his teammates in a meeting before the season began. They kept his secret; in fact, a large portion of the student body at Missouri knew of Sam’s sexual preference but never made it public.
L’Damian Washington, a Missouri wide receiver who first met Sam on a recruiting trip in January 2009, considers Sam his best friend. Washington, who said Sam came out to him about a year and a half ago, doesn’t believe he would have had the courage to make such an announcement.
“Hell no,” Washington said. “That takes some guts, and I commend him for it. He’s more of a man than me.”
Sam received the button, which reads “Stand With Sam” in white capital letters, prior to Missouri’s men’s basketball game against Tennessee on Feb. 15. Because he has been training for the combine, he considered himself “missing in action” and thus has mostly avoided the public response to his announcement.
He did say, however, that he believes the media is “just blowing it out of proportion,” and he fiercely downplayed any notion that he feels like a trailblazer for gay rights.
“A trailblazer? I feel like I’m Michael Sam,” he said.
Sam had 48 tackles, including 11.5 sacks, as the Tigers’ weakside defensive end in 2013. Measured at 6-foot-2 and 261 pounds, he more likely projects as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defensive scheme, but concerns have been noted about his inconsistency and his endurance.
“He’s got linebacker size, but he’s got physical skill set of a defensive end,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said in a conference call last week. “He’s a tough fit, so what I see is a situational pass rush – not an every-down player, but a situational pass rusher that also can become a core special teams player.”