What Will Michael Sam Mean For NFL Culture?

NFL hopeful Michael Sam announced he was gay Sunday evening, sparking a wave of public support but some skepticism about his NFL future.
Posted at 8:34 PM, Feb 10, 2014

In the 24 hours since Michael Sam's coming out, the man who could be the NFL's first openly gay player has received lots of public praise but also some skepticism from analysts and draft boards.

The 6'2" defensive end from the University of Missouri spoke to ESPN and The New York Times first, saying he wanted to tell his story before rumors about his sexuality got out ahead of him.

Sam came out to his Missouri teammates last year, the same year he was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Head coach Gary Pinkel told ESPN the team was very supportive of Sam's decision to reveal this news.

"First of all I gave him a hug and told him I loved him, and you've got our 100 percent full support. ... The next day he came in and he just said, 'I do not want to have any distractions for our football team. We gotta focus on football.'"

Sam's publicist told Outsports the announcement has been timed to minimize some of the media attention when Sam actually takes the field at the NFL level. "Part of the strategy is to announce it once, announce it well, and let Michael focus on his football."

And Sam's agent told CNN he hopes NFL teams will view Sam's announcement as a sign of his courage and honesty.

"I think if anything teams will look at it and see a guy who was honest and upfront, instead of waiting until after the draft to potentially make his announcement."

Both the NFL and Mizzou expressed their support for Sam's decision on Twitter, and a wide range of athletes from the NFL and beyond congratulated Sam on his coming out.

But privately some coaches and scouts are questioning Sam's chances in the draft. An anonymous agent told Sports Illustrated"this is a lot more okay in society than it is in lots of locker rooms. Some locker rooms are still stuck in the '50s."

And a Deadspin writer worries Sam's draft standings will be eroded and belittled by agents and managers looking for any reason not to draft the NFL's first gay player.

"Sam is about to endure three months of having his skill set diminished by anonymous scouts and executives, who might even convince themselves that their ... excuses are true. He's too small! He played against inferior SEC competition! What if he tackles players with a boner? Etc."

USA Today points out Sam's position on CBS's draft rankings dropped 70 points shortly after the announcement, from 90 all the way down to 160, though that's now bounced back to 110. 

But a Forbes writer points out Sam would hardly be the first NFL player to generate off-the-field media attention and Sam's role as a pioneer for gay athletes could end up being a net positive for whichever team picks him.

"It's funny how these anonymous executives paint the picture of NFL teams as so fragile that the addition of one openly gay player could throw the whole organization into chaos. ... Teams shouldn't have any problem rallying around a positive story like Michael Sam's."

Michael Sam's announcement comes just one week before he's scheduled to attend the NFL's Scouting Combine, from Feb. 19 to 25. The NFL draft begins May 8.