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Celebrating LGBTQ sports history: Michael Sam blazes a trail in college football and the NFL

Every day in October we’re looking back at the athletes, coaches and events that made LGBTQ sports history.

Michael Sam announces he’s gay.
 Missouri Tigers defensive lineman Michael Sam, center, on Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, became the most prominent, and apparently the first, active male athlete on the major U.S. sports scene to publicly disclose that he’s gay. Sam is seen during a college football game against Vanderbilt in this October 5, 2013, file photo.
David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Every day this month, we’re looking back at our pioneers, the mark they left on our community and on the sports world, plus landmark events and stories that show Courage Is Contagious. Today, we look back to February 2014, when co-founder Jim Buzinski wrote. “The SEC co-defensive player of the year from the University of Missouri would be first publicly gay active NFL player if drafted. ‘I want to own my truth,’ Michael Sam says. He came out to his team last summer.

NFL prospect Michael Sam comes out as gay

By Jim Buzinski Feb 9, 2014

Michael Sam celebrates with Missouri fans after a 2013 victory over Kentucky
Michael Sam celebrates with Missouri fans after a 2013 victory over Kentucky
Joe Robbins

Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive end who was the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year in 2013, has come out publicly as gay. If selected in the May draft or if signed as a free agent, he would become the first publicly gay player in NFL history.

Sam, 24, was out to his Missouri team last season and made his decision to go public about his sexual orientation less than two weeks before the NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis, an event where draft prospects show off their skills and are tested by the 32 NFL teams. Sam’s story was published simultaneously tonight in interviews with ESPN and The New York Times, and by Outsports.

“Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was,” Sam told John Branch of the New York Times. “I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay. I was so proud of myself and I just didn’t care who knew. If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay. Is that true?’ I would have said yes.

“But no one asked. I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not.”

In coming out now, Sam said he wanted him being gay to be known to the fans and front office of any team that drafted him. It would also be less of a distraction to come out in February as opposed to after the draft, during summer training camp or during the season, his agents Joe Barkett and Cameron Weiss said.

“I want to own my truth,” Sam told The Times.

Asked if he was nervous about the step he is taking, Sam told people at a Saturday night dinner party at the Los Angeles home of publicist Howard Bragman: “You all are the ones who are nervous. I’m excited.”

Sam was a standout on the Missouri Tigers team that went 12-2, which included a win in the Cotton Bowl. His 11.5 sacks, 19 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles won him co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, the highest-ranked conference in college football.

His honors this year were numerous: first-team All-SEC; first-team All-America from the Sporting News, Walter Camp Football Foundation, Associated Press, America Football Coaches Association and the Football Writers Association of America. His skills as a lineman have him projected by draft analysts to be selected this May anywhere from the second to fifth rounds, depending on how he performs in the combine and at Missouri’s pro day this spring. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. is high on Sam and projects him as a third- or fourth-round selection based on previous NFL history of players with similar skills.

Throughout high school, Sam considered himself bisexual and dated girls. It was only once he enrolled at Missouri that he finally realized he was gay. Once out to himself, he never tried to hide it and told his Missouri Tigers teammates officially before the 2013 season. While he said many people on the team knew or suspected, he told them all he was gay during a team bonding meeting in August. Players were asked to share something about them that no one knew, and Sam decided that this was the best time to let everyone know who didn’t already.

His teammates were universally accepting and he said he did not have any problems on the team about it. He said that he even occasionally took straight teammates to gay clubs, including at the recent Cotton Bowl in Dallas, a sign of their embrace of him and the fun they had hanging out with the gregarious, outgoing Sam. One even attended gay pride event with him in St. Louis. For a time, he was also dating a member of the Missouri men’s swimming team and did not hide that relationship from teammates. In fact, he said his openly dating the swimmer was the obvious clue for his teammates before he told the team in August.

For Sam, the stress and trauma he suffered growing up in Hitchcock, Texas, has more than prepared him for anything he will face for being openly gay, he said. He was raised by a single mom after his parents separated, the youngest boy of their eight children. He said he was a “punching bag” for his older brothers growing up and wanted to excel at sports so he could leave his hometown behind. He has had three siblings who have died and two brothers who have been in and out of jail. He only told his parents of his sexual orientation last week.

His agents have been totally behind Sam’s decision. “We’ve had a lot of people tell us not to do this,” Barkett said. “Friends, prominent business people. But it’s something Cameron and I were asked to help with. And to say no to someone regardless of what the situation is, that’s not in our personal beliefs. Mike entrusted us with this, and we want to make sure it’s done right for Mike and the gay community as a whole.”

Sam’s coming out has been choreographed by Bragman, a veteran Hollywood publicist and himself gay. In addition to coordinating coverage with ESPN, the New York Times and Outsports, Bragman held a dinner with Sam this weekend, which included former NFL players Dave Kopay and Wade Davis, gay former Major League Baseball player Billy Bean and straight allies and former NFL players Brendon Ayanbadejo and Chris Kluwe. The plan is to let Sam focus the next year solely on football and not seek to make him a gay role model.

“These kids just live in a different world than I grew up in,” Bragman said of Sam’s decision. “This is a great way for this to happen. He’ll end up on the team that wants him and all of him.”

“This is unbelievable, fabulous news,” said Kopay, who came out in 1975 after retiring from the NFL and has been waiting nearly 40 years for an active player to come out.

“I think Michael will be well received by the majority of the players, though it won’t be 100% acceptance, said Kluwe, who punted for the Minnesota Vikings for eight years. “Unfortunately, in our society, there are always people who just won’t understand treating people with empathy, so he’ll have to be prepared to potentially deal with some of those individuals.”

Despite there being no openly gay players, the NFL has been preparing teams for such an eventuality. Last spring, the league sent all 32 teams a memo outlining acceptable conduct as it pertains to sexual orientation. Included are some prohibited behaviors, such as preventing teams from trying to find out if a prospective player is gay and “demeaning or hostile comments regarding one’s sexual orientation, including offensive or degrading words or phrases.”

Late Sunday after the news broke, the NFL released this statement: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. 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.”

Sam’s agent said that rumors about their client’s sexual orientation were apparent during the January Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., an early showcase for NFL draft prospects. They said that NFL scouts did not ask directly whether Sam was gay, but instead asked leading questions such as whether Sam had a girlfriend. In contrast, these same scouts asked agents of other players (presumed straight) questions about football, not relationships. “Keep your blinders on. You’re a football player. Focus on football and let us handle everything else,” the agents told Sam.

Kluwe agrees with the agents, saying, “The biggest obstacle for Michael will be putting too much pressure on himself to be more than he has to be. A lot of people will be putting him under a microscope, and he’ll be a role model for many others, so he has to try and stay as relaxed as possible and trust in his abilities that have gotten him this far.”

If Sam steps on the field in September during the NFL’s opening weekend, he would be the first publicly identifiable gay man to play in a regular season game. He is far from the first gay NFL player, but all others from Kopay to Esera Tuaolo to Davis came out after they had retired, or have remained closeted. NBA player Jason Collins came out while active last year, though he is still unsigned. There have been no openly gay NHL or Major League Baseball players, while Robbie Rogers is openly gay in Major League Soccer. — Jim Buzinski


June 2019:

Former pro football defensive end Michael Sam no longer plays football, but he is still tackling opponents. Instead of big burly men in jerseys, Sam is taking on those who wield words, and potentially mischaracterize his past. The out trailblazer embarked on a national college speaking tour this past winter and spring, telling his story and setting the record, well, straight.

“I do not regret coming out,” Sam tweeted in February, after reports from one of those speaking engagements failed to report his exact words to students at the University of New Mexico. The reports said he regretted coming out, a topic we’ve covered before, one that requires a bit of nuance to report accurately. Outsports obtained a recording of that engagement to clarify exactly what Sam meant.

Sam said that moment of regret was five years ago, while he was in San Diego during the seventh round of the NFL Draft. He said it looked like he might not get drafted by any team. That feeling passed quickly, he said, after being embraced by his then-boyfriend Vito Cammisano, and subsequently upon learning he had in fact been drafted by the Rams.

Here’s a partial transcript of what Sam said to students at the University of New Mexico:

“I started getting emotional. I started crying. I went upstairs. I was looking at the ocean and I was hearing the seals talk to each other. And, for like, the briefest of moments I had doubt. I had regret, actually. I said, “Did I do the right thing? Should I have kept quiet?* And I didn’t even hear him come in. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I looked around and it was Vito. And he was crying, too. And he gave me the most powerful hug. And like, it just made me feel so good, I don’t care what happens in this draft. I love this guy. Pretty much, excuse my French, but ’Fuck ‘em all.’ (LAUGHTER) Fuck ’em all!”

Sam said there were actually two instances in which he felt betrayed: the first was when a Mizzou teammate called him what The Albuquerque Journal described as a derogatory name, during practice.

Then, after getting drafted by the Rams in May 2014, a teammate reportedly called Sam a negative name. He told his audience he stood up for himself.

But even though Sam led the Rams in sacks during that preseason and was later a practice-squad player for the Dallas Cowboys, he never played in a single regular-season game in the NFL. That, Sam said, made him angry and led to depression.

Calling it mental illness, Sam said he had to learn to forgive, starting with himself. He forgave his father who he said abandoned the family, and his brothers, who he said abused him. But Sam struggled to forgive the NFL.

“The NFL gave me a raw deal,” said Sam, according to The Albuquerque Journal. “It was tough to forgive them. I love football. Football gave me an education and gave me the opportunity I so desperately needed at the time. I really am grateful for the sport.”

He’s had so many ups and downs: from the kiss seen around the world and receiving the Arthur Ashe Award at the Espys, to his disappointment in never playing anything other than in the preseason for the NFL.

The Rams drafted him, then cut him loose; the Cowboys signed him, then dumped him. His career with the Montreal Alouettes was short-lived, and his abrupt departure a sad end to a promising career.

Yet Michael Sam continues to pour his heart and soul into what he does off the field, from using his last dance on “Dancing With The Stars” to emotionally express his fractured relationship his homophobic father, to sharing his story with Oprah and inspiring others to live their own truth. — Dawn Ennis

We’ll have another LGBTQ Sports history story tomorrow and every day through Oct. 31.