Michael Sam Is Gay: SEC Defensive Player of the Year and NFL Prospect Comes Out

After a tumultuous two years for football’s relationship with the queer community, Michael Sam, a defensive lineman for the University of Missouri came out as gay today. Not only is Sam a trailblazer for queer athletes who want to be able to be themselves while pursuing their passion for sports, but by all accounts he is an excellent football player and a leader on the field. If he is selected in this summer’s NFL draft (which all signs are pointing toward), he will become the first male athlete to play one of the four major professional sports after coming out. The fact that he did so willingly and before his professional career has even started shows that he has a lot of hope for the future of gay male athletes in America.

This is especially big news because of both where Sam played football and where he might play it this fall. Missouri is one of the schools in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered to be the best and toughest college football conference in the entire country. The team went 12-2 last year, won the Cotton Bowl and regularly had their games featured on TV. Sam was one of the standout players on the team, being named team MVP, First Team All-American and the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Now that his college days are over, he’s focusing on preparing for a future career in the NFL and wants to make sure that he does it on his own terms. Sam told ESPN, “I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it. I just want to own my truth.”

After players including Manti Te’o and Nick Kasa had their sexuality questioned by both pundits and team executives during pre-NFL draft vetting, the league didn’t exactly look like the most queer friendly place. Things got even worse when Jonathan Martin abruptly left the Miami Dolphins after bullying allegations that involved anti-gay slurs and claims that he wasn’t “man enough” to play in the NFL came to light. Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe then added to this view of football culture when he claimed that he lost his job in the NFL due to his strong vocal support of gay rights. However, Sam believes that things are getting better for gay players in football and says that he found support from his fellow players while at Missouri. He says that when he came out to them, a lot already suspected.

“I was kind of scared, even though they already knew. Just to see their reaction was awesome. They supported me from Day One. I couldn’t have better teammates. …I’m telling you what: I wouldn’t have the strength to do this today if I didn’t know how much support they’d given me this past semester.”

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel released a statement offering his support, saying:

“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. 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.”

Sam isn’t all alone when it comes to male professional athletes coming out in recent years. Last year former NBA player Jason Collins came out, and although he isn’t officially retired, he hasn’t played professional basketball since he made his announcement. Robbie Rogers, a professional soccer player also came out after he announced his retirement, but has since returned to playing professional soccer for Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. Of course, we have to acknowledge all of the incredible queer women who have been openly playing sports for decades from Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova to Megan Rapinoe and Brittney Griner to the seven out women competing in this year’s Winter Olympics.

GLAAD President Sarah Kate Ellis has commented that: “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… 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.”

According to the New York Times, several NFL experts have been predicting that Sam will be drafted in the third round, which usually guarantees a player a roster spot and often leads to that player starting in the league. If he does make it to the NFL, this will become an even bigger story. Hopefully his courage and honesty will help to bring about a change in the culture of hyper-masculinity that often permeates football culture. It also might help to inspire other male athletes who won’t feel so alone when they are thinking about coming out. Sam’s story is one of optimism and a bright future, and in a time when we keep on seeing stories about LGBT oppression and sports going hand-in-hand, this is a welcome reprieve.

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Mey is a lesbian Latina trans woman living in Idaho. Her areas of expertise include comic books, trans issues and pop culture. She has an English Degree, a cat named Sawyer, a tumblr that she uses a lot and a twitter that she only uses occasionally.

Mey has written 159 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. Thumb up 11

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    as a big homo/football fan with my own reservations about the league (economically, morally, and of course concerning equality) this is such a step in the right direction and i was so proud to hear this news this evening! i’ll be cheering for michael no matter what team he plays for (eh? see what i did there? i’ll let myself out)

  2. Thumb up 17

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    K, so while I’m SO proud of Sam, and am behind him 3000%, and am just really happy about it, I do need to mention that if you give a damn about women or justice or ethics at all, you need to think long and hard about venerating Mizzou and/or it’s athletic department and/or its football team, in light of its long and beautiful history of actively covering up its football players raping its female students. Sasha Menu Courey, a Mizzou athlete, fairly recently took her life in a large part due to Mizzou refusing to investigate her rape by Mizzou football players, and when called out on it by ESPN, tried to cover their asses by saying that Menu Courey was crazy before she came to the school. A couple years ago, Derrick Washington, a Mizzou football player, sexually assaulted his student tutor, and the Mizzou football coach, as well as the Athletic Department, fought hard to keep him from suffering any repercussions. Mizzou has also done a horrible job dealing with the frat house rapes that are a pretty regular occurrence ’round here.
    So be careful, y’all, with your wording. Show all of your respect to Michael Sam, and zero to Mizzou, which pretty much deserves to rot in the fiery pits of hell.

    Sorry, it’s just been all over my newsfeed (I live in Columbia, Missouri), praising Mizzou for this, when all praise should be given to Sam and Sam only.

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      Woya, thanks for sharing this information! I graduated from UT, another big football and frat school with a serious and poorly-dealt-with rape problem. I agree that it makes no sense to venerate a problematic institution for the bravery and badassery of an individual. On the one hand, it is evil and awful that Mizzou’s head coach worked to keep players from facing consequences for assault; but, the quote from him in this story – that quote, coming from a head football coach at a major university – is a big deal, and I appreciate him saying it, even though it doesn’t excuse or erase his past bad actions. But, it’s always critical to keep in mind the context of these events and the histories of the individuals involved.

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      I agree that the responses of certain individuals in the athletic department re: sexual assault have been seriously disturbing and a cause for investigation. And, I agree that Michael Sam deserves so much praise for his honesty and courage.

      However, I’d hate to see “Mizzou” at large be criticized for the (in)actions of a handful of people. Mizzou is much more than that, and I think it’s important to celebrate the hard work of many, many people associated with Mizzou who help to make this campus a safe, welcoming place for LGBTQ students. I attend Mizzou, and I’m proud of so much that happens here.

      It’s certainly right to withhold praise for people associated with the sexual assault situation(s), but I want to give some credit where credit is due. To Michael’s teammates and coaches who accepted and respected him, and to all those on campus who promote an atmosphere where that kind of acceptance is the norm, thank you!! You make me proud to call this school my home.

      • Thumb up 3

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        Oooookay.
        I don’t if you’ve followed the Sasha Menu Courey case, but if you haven’t, you should, and if you have, than you missed the whole point. Or the Derrick Washington case, which DIRECTLY involved Gary Pinkel. Or, college-football-related rape culture in general.
        This isn’t about “a handful of people.” Honestly, that’s a very ignorant, problematic statement. And it’s plain inaccurate.
        Given all of Mizzou Athletics’ bad press recently, OF COURSE they’re going to publicly support Sam. And it really is telling that he chose to come out AFTER his stint in Mizzou’s football program was over.
        Context, man. Context. It’s everything.
        I’m going to walk away now…hit a little too close to home, yo.

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          I was truly trying to engage in good faith, so I apologize for upsetting you. I understand the issues at hand, and I’m not excusing the people involved, or saying they’re not real, serious problems. My point: the university is more than just the athletic department. There are 50,000 or so people that attend or are employed by the university, most of whom are not associated with the athletic department. Many people actively work to make this campus welcoming – those are the only people I’m trying to give credit to. I’m not “venerating” people for not being jerks. I’m thanking people who are actively huge allies and supporters, because they exist, and I don’t want their importance to go unrecognized in this story. That’s all. Again, I’m sincerely sorry if that came across wrong or wasn’t clear.

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    I think the courage that Michael showed here will help in a big way when it comes to gay cis male athletes on a junior high, high school, or college level having someone to look up to who is an active player in one of the major professional sports in the US. For that consideration alone and how this will help to gradually increase queer visibility and acceptance in the male world of sports this is huge. In some ways Jackie Robinson comes to mind in the trail blazing work that Michael Sam will be doing here in this capacity. I truly wish him all the best.

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    Awesome article and very exciting news! I wanted to ask about this quote: “Hopefully his courage and honesty will help to bring about a change in the culture of hyper-masculinity that often permeates football culture.” The issue with NFL culture isn’t masculinity but homophobia, right? (among other things). So the very powerful message is that gay men are every bit as male (and masculine) as the rest of the NFL guys. As a trans* guy I winced a little at that quote when it’s homophobia and misogyny and etc that are the problem; not maleness or masculinity.

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      The notions of hyper-masculinity within the football culture are directly correlated with misogyny and homophobia. There’s nothing inherently wrong with masculinity, but the expectations placed on football players to ascribe to one very rigid definition of what it means to be masculine is what is toxic.

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        yes the problem is that masculinity is equated with homophobia and misogyny *in the NFL*; unfortunately the author’s quote *also* equates these things, and the AS community is not the NFL. I just wish the quote was worded so the focus was on changing homophobia in the NFL and not changing masculinity.

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    Good for you Michael, took the SEC by storm this year. I still don’t understand how he’s not a Linebacker with a name like Michael (Mike) Sam….
    My biggest memory of him is recording three sacks against my Gators :(
    But it’s ok anyways.
    Good luck bud.

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    Football programs are terrible because capitalism, but this is still WONDERFUL news. I’m a high school teacher and thinking about what this might mean to closeted boys (and girls, and people) across the country makes me tear up. Sam, you rule for being brave and coming out before the draft. <3

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    I just got home from teaching 5th graders about puberty and bodies and the like. One of them brought up Michael Sam when we were talking about sexual orientation, after of his classmates was convinced the stereotypes about gay men were true. It was insane to see these tiny humans engage in a conversation about equality and outdated stereotypes -all thanks to the visibility of Michael Sam.

    Thank you for this piece, Mey!

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