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Can Michael Sam Flourish as NFL’s First Openly Gay Player?

Former Missouri star defensive end Michael Sam admitted to the world on Sunday that he is gay, paving the way to become the first openly gay player in NFL history.

Can Michael Sam Flourish as NFL’s First Openly Gay Player?
Michael Sam will make his NFL debut next September with the added pressure faced with his admission on Sunday. Photo courtesy mmtzjr69out via Creative Commons license.

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam put together an outstanding collegiate career, one that saw him named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 along with being named a first-team All-American.

Over his four-year career with the Tigers, Sam was a menacing presence, totaling 123 tackles, 21 sacks and six forced fumbles. By all accounts, he is expected to be a high first-round selection when the NFL Draft comes up in May.

But on Monday, the news wasn’t about Sam’s abilities. It was about his personal life.

Appearing on ESPN’s Outside the Lines on Sunday, Sam told Chris Connelly that he is “an openly, proud gay man."

Those words might not come as a shock if Sam wasn’t starring on the football field. But the NFL has never once had a player openly admit that they were gay, meaning that Sam will be treading new ground when he is drafted in three months.

Sam’s teammates and coaches at Missouri have known about his sexual orientation since last August. While he never asked his teammates to keep his revelation a secret, it was a fact not known to the outside world.

Sam’s openly candid admission was received with praise from several sources, including his former coach at Missouri, Gary Pinkel.

"We're really happy for Michael that he's made the decision to announce this, and we're proud of him and how he represents Mizzou," Pinkel said. "Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he's taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn't matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we're all on the same team and we all support each other."

The NFL released a statement as well in support of Sam’s admission.

"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," NFL senior vice president of communications Greg Aiello said in the 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."

Sam understands what his admission means as well, and he appears ready to meet the challenge of being the NFL’s first-ever openly gay player.

"I understand how big this is," he said. "It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL."

Judging from what’s been seen on the field, Sam is certainly ready for the physical challenges he’ll face for the first time next season. The NFL can be a daunting task for any player coming out of college, but facing it with the additional pressure that Sam now faces is certainly a tall order.

But Sam is fully aware of what he is about to face, and he’s chosen to look at the glass as half-full.

"There will be negativity, negative reactions," he said. "I expect that. ... Everyone can say hurtful things and hateful things; I don't let stuff like that distract me. But there are going to be positives. The positives will outweigh the negative."

That’s the attitude that Sam will likely need in the coming months. He’s going to face off against opposing linemen in the NFL who will do anything they can to gain an edge, both physically and mentally. Taunting is a big part of what happens on an NFL field, and Sam could face off against opponents who won’t think twice about hurling testosterone-fueled rants and comments his way.

There’s no question Sam is physically capable of meeting the demands of an NFL career. It will be how he responds emotionally that will ultimately decide his legacy.

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