MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam revealed to the world Sunday night that he is homosexual. The consensus All-American’s declaration could set the stage for him to be the first active openly gay player in the history of the NFL.
But the decision to reveal his sexuality also comes with great risks for his future in the game of football.
On the field as a senior at Missouri, Sam helped lead a defense that reinvented itself in the hard-fought SEC. Sam pulled down 11.5 sacks in 14 games for the Tigers in 2013 along with 19 tackles for loss and 48 total tackles.
It turns out that Sam revealed his sexual orientation to his teammates last August and the teammates and team kept his secret until he was ready to reveal it to the world. His teammates rallied around him and together they became only the second Mizzou squad to ever win 12 games in a season.
The team and school issued comments Sunday night praising Sam’s decision to come out and the atmosphere at Missouri that allowed the defensive end to flourish for the last five years.
Now that he’s out, the issue of how it will impact him in the NFL has become the primary question.
Jonathan Vilma, a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints and previously played for Coral Gables High School and the University of Miami, was a guest Monday night on CNN’s AC 360. “There are going to be people that accept it willingly as soon as he comes in, welcome him with open arms and then unfortunately there will be some – I’m about 99 percent sure the minority – will say well they’re not comfortable with that yet they don’t know how to respond to that,” Vilma said.
Vilma also told CNN he wanted to clarify a statement made in a prior interview in which he said. “Imagine if he’s the guy next to me and I get dressed, naked, taking a shower the whole nine and it just so happens he looks at me. How am I supposed to respond?”
Vilma said, Monday night, that’s not a concern. “That’s just a poor example of me trying to show a bigger picture which is the dynamics of the locker room on every level.” He added, “Michael Sam is extremely comfortable, extremely confident in himself. He’s a very good football player. There is nothing for him to be worried about.”
Based on early reports from anonymous NFL executives quoted by SI.com, the news isn’t necessarily promising for Sam.
“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “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.”
SI.com said all of the personnel men it spoke to believe Sam’s stock in the NFL drop will plummet in the wake of his announcement. Sam’s been projected to be drafted anywhere between the third and seventh rounds of the 2014 NFL Draft in May.
One assistant personnel man SI.com spoke to said that Sam’s homosexuality was an “open secret” in Columbia, Missouri and that he thought “90 percent of teams” knew the All-American was gay and had dropped him on their draft boards.
Sam’s announcement also comes just a few weeks after he struggled at the annual Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. Sam, who stands 6’2” and weighs 255 pounds, is viewed in the NFL as a “tweener” because he’s not quite big enough to be a defensive end and possibly too big to be an outside linebacker.
According to NFL.com, “Sam worked at both defensive end and linebacker during Day 2 of Senior Bowl practice Tuesday and appeared to struggle more at linebacker.” The NFL.com report speculated Sam will have to be a linebacker to allow him to rush the passer without worrying as much about the run.
SI.com’s report said that if Sam and another player were rated equally, the biggest issue for a team thinking about drafting him is does that team want the media frenzy that he arriving at camp will bring with it.
Another unnamed assistant coach said Sam’s decision to come out was “not a smart move,” according to SI.com and said that it’s not a coincidence that former NBA player Jason Collins, who came out last year, hasn’t been signed by an NBA team this season.
But, with the NFL Draft, often times “unnamed” executives/scouts will put out bad information in hopes that a player they want to draft but may be above their slotted position will fall to them.
How Sam will be perceived in the locker room varied from player to player across the NFL. The Miami Dolphins’ Brent Grimes said it shouldn’t matter, though some might be upset about it. “I’ve never really understood the big deal about knowing someone’s sexual preference. I don’t care,” Grimes tweeted.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Drayton Flornece tweeted, “No comment but it can be a distraction in the locker room. At least he’s open with it much respect.”
For its part, the NFL came out in full support of Sam’s decision and called him courageous.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the league statement said. “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.
New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch echoed the NFL’s comments saying, “Michael Sam is a gifted athlete and a courageous man,” Tisch told TMZ.com. “I hope any NFL team would not hesitate to draft Michael if he is right for their team.”