Making history, Michael Sam, a 24-year-old defensive end, on May 10 became the first out gay man drafted into the National Football League, picked by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh and final round of the draft.
Prior to the pick, Sam enjoyed a successful college career at the University of Missouri, leading the Southeastern Conference in quarterback sacks and tackles for loss. In his final year, he was named All-American by several organizations, including the American Football Coaches Association, and was designated co-defensive player of the year by the Associated Press, a title shared with linebacker C.J. Mosley from the University of Alabama.
In February, having wound up his collegiate tenure, Sam came out publicly in an interview with ESPN, voicing the hope of becoming the first out gay NFL athlete. When asked why he chose that time to come out, the athlete, acknowledging the spotlight that would be cast on him if he journeyed to pro ball, replied, “I want to own my truth. No one else should tell my story but me.”
Speculation immediately arose as to whether coming out would hurt Sam’s chances in the upcoming draft and if the NFL was yet ready for an out gay player.
Sam was initially thought likely to be a third or fourth round pick in the draft, but his prospects dimmed after what was widely viewed as a lackluster performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. At the combine, the view hardened that he might be too small for a defensive end and not fast enough to play linebacker.
Sam’s recruitment was met with mostly positive responses. He received messages not only from fellow athletes — including gay NBA player Jason Collins, who came out last year and now plays for the Brooklyn Nets — but also from President Barack Obama and LGBT rights leaders, including Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin.
But not all the feedback has been positive. After ESPN televised Sam’s draft and subsequent reaction — which included not one but three kisses with his boyfriend, former University of Missouri swimmer Vito Cammisano — Miami Dolphins safety Don Jones vented on social media, referring to the draft pick and the resulting attention as “horrible.” The Dolphins have since fined and suspended Jones. Former University of Texas quarterback Case McCoy took to Twitter to express his complaints about ESPN’s coverage of Sam, writing, immediately after the kisses were aired, “ESPN… You serious right now?
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher is confident Sam is the right fit for the team, saying, “We're in an age of diversity. Players understand that, they know that.”
Prior to his pick by the Rams, Sam, in an ad for Visa, was essentially endorsed by the credit card company. The ad, released just days prior to the start of the draft, had the collegiate star daring people to “judge me.” While no mention of his sexuality is made, it is clear that Sam intends the message as a challenge that he be accepted for his athletic abilities and not his sexual orientation.
Since being drafted, Sam has received several additional endorsement offers — which is unprecedented for a player drafted so late. Outsports.com reported that, according to the NFL, Sam’s new Rams jersey is the second highest selling among the 2014 draftees after the Browns’ new quarterback pick Johnny Manziel, who was number 22 overall in the draft.
Sam’s pick is not the first time that the Rams have made historic strides for the NFL. In 1946, the team, then located in Los Angeles, signed Kenny Washington as the first African-American football player with a contract in the league.
So what does this mean for all the rumored gay athletes currently playing in the NFL? Being drafted doesn’t guarantee Michael Sam a spot on the roster. Less than half of seventh round draft picks make the roster in their rookie year. It will be a labored battle; here’s to hoping he is up to the challenge.
In the meantime, go Rams!