Coaches at the University of Missouri divided players into small groups at a preseason football practice last year for a team-building exercise. One by one, players were asked to talk about themselves — where they grew up, why they chose Missouri and what others might not know about them.
As Michael Sam, a defensive lineman, began to speak, he balled up a piece of paper in his hands.
“I’m gay,” he said.
With that, Sam set himself on a path to become the first publicly gay player in the National Football League.
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“I looked in their eyes, and they just started shaking their heads — like, finally, he came out,” Sam said Sunday in an interview with The New York Times, the first time he spoke publicly about his sexual orientation.
Sam, a 6-foot-2, 260-pound senior, went on to a stellar season for Missouri, which finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. He was named a first-team All-American. He was the defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football. Teammates voted him Missouri’s most valuable player.
Sam is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career. And he is doing so as he prepares to enter a league with an overtly macho culture, where controversies over homophobia have attracted recent attention.
As the pace of the gay-rights movement has accelerated drastically in recent years, the sports industry has seen relatively little change, with no publicly gay male athletes in the NFL, the NBA, the NHL or MLB. Against this backdrop, Sam could become a symbol for the country’s gay-rights movement or a flashpoint in a football culture war — or both.
Sam, 24, is projected to be chosen in the early rounds of the NFL draft in May, ordinarily an invitation to a prosperous professional career. He said he decided to come out publicly now because he sensed that rumors were circulating.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” said Sam, who also spoke with ESPN on Sunday. “I just want to own my truth.”
But the NFL presents the potential for unusual challenges. In the past year or so, the league has been embroiled in controversies ranging from anti-gay statements from players to reports that scouts asked at least one prospective player if he liked girls.
Recently, Chris Kluwe, a punter, said that he was subject to homophobic language from coaches and pushed out of a job with the Minnesota Vikings because he vocally supported same-sex-marriage laws. And last week, Jonathan Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, said in an interview with the NFL Network that he did not want a gay teammate.
The league, which has a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation (among other things), is the largest of the major sports leagues in the U.S. with about 1,600 players on rosters at any time during the season. But it has never had a publicly gay player.
A few players have come out upon retirement, like NFL player Dave Kopay in the 1970s and NBA player John Amaechi in 2007, both considered pioneers by many gay people.
Last spring, Jason Collins, a 12-year veteran of the NBA, mostly as a little-used reserve, came out after the season. A free agent, he has not been signed by another team.
Although Sam’s professional prospects are far from certain, several NFL draft forecasters have predicted that he will be chosen in the third round. (Thirty-two players are selected in each round.) Rarely are players who are drafted that high cut by teams, and often they become starters, sometimes in their rookie year.
Sam might be considered too small for a professional defensive end, meaning he would have to learn to play as an outside linebacker. But it is reasonable for Sam to wonder what sort of impact — positive or negative — his declaration will have.
“I’m not naive,” Sam said. “I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the NFL.”
Sam said he graduated from Missouri in December, the only member of his family to attend college. He grew up in Hitchcock, Texas, 40 miles southeast of Houston, the seventh of eight children. Three of his siblings have died, and two brothers are in prison, Sam said. He was raised mostly by his mother, and another family took him in for a time. All have been supportive of his coming out, Sam said.
Sam said he began to wonder if he was gay in his early teens, though he had a girlfriend in high school. It was after he arrived at Missouri in 2009 that he realized for certain that he was gay.
Teammates increasingly suspected as much, and some knew that he dated a man on the university’s swim team, but it never prevented Sam from being one of the most popular players on the team. He was known for his intensity on the field and his booming voice off it.
Sam came out to two of his friends on the team, L’Damian Washington and Marvin Foster, about a year ago.
Last April, the Missouri athletic administration held diversity seminars for all athletes, part of the You Can Play project, focused largely on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Sam complimented Pat Ivey, Missouri’s associate athletic director for athletic performance, for the lesson.
“When Mike finished the conversation, he said, ‘Coach, I know I can play,’ ” Ivey recalled. “And we kind of had an understanding of each other, that this wasn’t just him saying, ‘Good job.’ This was him saying: ‘Coach, I’m involved in it. I’m a part of what we just discussed.’”
Sam said he had the full support of teammates, coaches and administrators. One teammate, he said, accompanied him to a gay-pride event in St. Louis last summer, and others went with him to gay bars.
“Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was … If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay; is that true?’ I would have said ‘yes.’ ”
No one asked. “I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not,” Sam said.