NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Tolerance is about to be tested in the National Football League.
And Michael Sam hopes his ability is all that matters, not his sexual orientation.
Missouri’s All-American defensive end came out to the entire country Sunday night and could become the first openly gay player in America’s most popular sport.
“I just want to go to the team who drafts me,” Sam told ESPN in an interview that aired Sunday, “because that team knows about me, knows that I’m gay, and also knows that I work hard. That’s the team I want to go to.”
Nobody has ever done this before.
“The NFL is not a progressive place when it comes to stuff like this,” former Jets offensive lineman Damien Woody told the New York Post. “It will be fascinating to see how the league handles this. The draft just got more interesting. This is not a player that nobody knows about.”
In interviews with ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports, Sam said publicly for the first time that he was gay. He said he came out to his teammates and coaches at Missouri in August.
Sam will participate in the NFL combine later this month in Indianapolis and is projected to be a mid-round draft pick in May.
“Hopefully it will be the same like my locker room,” Sam told ESPN. “It’s a workplace. If you’ve ever been in a Division I or pro locker room, it’s a business place. You want to act professional.”
Sam received much public support Sunday night from people throughout the world of sports, including Jason Collins, the NBA player who said publicly last season that he is gay.
There also were words of caution.
Offensive lineman Frank Garcia, who played nine seasons (1995-2003) in the NFL with the Panthers, Rams and Cardinals, said Sam could face “huge challenges” in the league.
Garcia was teammates and good friends with defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo, who announced he was gay on HBO’s Real Sports in 2002 — three years after he left the NFL.
Garcia said although he and Tuaolo regularly hung out as teammates in Carolina in 1999, Tuaolo never once let on that he was gay.
“I think a lot of guys in the NFL are going to say they will accept it, but there are a lot of guys who won’t,” said Garcia, now a sports radio show host with WFNZ-AM in Charlotte. “The reality is Michael Sam is going to open himself up to a lot of criticism and a lot of challenges. Those are challenges most gay people have to go through, but when you are dealing with alpha males and some meatheads in an NFL locker room it’s amplified. And there are some guys who have strong religious beliefs, too, so he’s going to be judged. He’s going to face some things that are going to be very difficult to overcome.”
Eight unnamed NFL executives and coaches told Sports Illustrated that Sam’s draft stock would likely plummet.
“I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down,” a veteran scout told SI.com. “There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?'”
“I don’t think football is ready for it just yet,” a player personnel assistant added. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a (gay slur) is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam participated in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month after leading the Southeastern Conference in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). He was the SEC defensive player of the year.
There have been a few NFL players who have come out after their playing days, including Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay.
Collins, a 35-year-old backup center, came out after last season when he was a free agent and was not signed this season. MLS star and U.S. national team player Robbie Rogers also came out a year ago.
Sam’s announcement comes at a time gay rights and sports have collided at the Olympics in Sochi. Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law has received much attention, and criticism, because of the games.
“By rewriting the script for countless young athletes, Michael has demonstrated the leadership that, along with his impressive skills on the field, makes him a natural fit for the NFL,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, a leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization. “With acceptance of LGBT people rising across our coasts — in our schools, churches, and workplaces — it’s clear that America is ready for an openly gay football star.”
But New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said just last week on the NFL Network that a gay player “would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted.”
The NFL’s sexual orientation, anti-discrimination and harassment policy states:
“Coaches, General Managers and others responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player’s sexual orientation. This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest that the player’s sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him.
“Examples: Do you like women or men? How well do you do with the ladies? Do you have a girlfriend?”
Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams tweeted:
Williams’ teammate, cornerback Drayton Florence, posted on his Twitter account:
Division III Willamette kicker Conner Mertens, a redshirt freshman, said last month he was bisexual.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the NFL said in 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.”
Several football players put their names on LGBT pride T-shirts last summer, including Baltimore star Terrell Suggs.
Suggs told WFAN radio in February 2013 that a gay teammate would have no problem in the Ravens locker room.
“It comes down to religion, and there are certain things that guys are allowed to disagree on,” Suggs said on the “Boomer & Carton” show. “But this is America, and you get to have your opinion and you get to have your beliefs. Like I said, in our locker room we accept everybody for everything. Our No. 1 goal is to come together, and let’s win some football games — not to scrutinize a person on his personal beliefs or his sexual orientation.”
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