News Off the Ball

Sunday 21 September 2014

Texan Sam to break down barriers as NFL's first openly gay player

Donny Mahoney

Published 12/02/2014 | 02:30

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Michael Sam
Michael Sam

It's safe to say that few outside of American football fans in the unexceptional state of Missouri would have known the name Michael Sam before last weekend.

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Now he's on the verge of becoming the transformative athlete of his generation. Welcome to sport in the 21st century.

On Sunday, Sam, a defensive lineman from Texas and a student at the University of Missouri, came out.

He'll be eligible for selection in April's NFL draft and when he is selected, he will be the NFL's first openly gay player.

The timing of Sam's announcement was carefully orchestrated, and quietly profound: he wanted to give every team ample time to consider the ramifications of bringing a gay player into their locker room.

Of course, as many ex-pros, like Deion Sanders, have reminded fans over the past few days, Sam is hardly the NFL's first gay player.

Back in 1969, during his forgettable season coaching the Washington Redskins, NFL legend Vince Lombardi told his locker room the following about running back Ray McDonald, who was known by the team to be gay: "If I hear one of you people make reference to his manhood, you'll be out of here before your ass hits the ground."

It's difficult to tell whether the spirit of Lombardi still pervades in the league.

In the hours after the story broke, a number of NFL coaches and executives were quoted anonymously saying the league wasn't ready for a gay player.

Since then, teams like the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers have issued statements declaring their openness to having Sam play for them.

While there'll be an ungodly amount of media attention on Sam in the build-up to the draft (and for the rest of his career), it seems as if he is the ideal candidate to handle the pressure.

He was captain of Missouri during their impressive 12-2 season last year. Best of all, he told his team he was gay before last season started, and, as such, they collectively destroyed the myth that a gay player might have a negative effect on a team's chemistry.

And unlike, say, Jason Collins, who has not played a game of professional basketball since coming out, Sam is at the upward arc of his playing career.

You can presume that soon enough the entire sporting world will know the name Michael Sam.

Irish Independent

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