NEW YORK (AP) — The NFL, America’s most popular pro sports league, could soon have its first openly gay player. Michael Sam, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound star from the University of Missouri, came out on Sunday night.
He could soon become the first openly gay athlete in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues; a few players have come out after their playing days ended.
“I just want to go to the team who drafts me because that team knows about me, knows that I’m gay and also knows that I work hard. That’s the team I want to go to,” Sam told ESPN in an interview that aired Sunday.
In interviews with ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports, Sam said publicly for the first time that he is gay. He said he came out to his teammates and coaches at Missouri in August. Sam’s announcement comes at a time gay rights and sports have collided at the Olympics in Sochi. Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law has received much attention – and criticism – because of the games.
It also comes as one National Football League team, the Minnesota Vikings, has launched an independent investigation into the allegations of outspoken ex-Viking Chris Kluwe, who says that he was released from the team due to his support of gay marriage.
Sam received much public support Sunday night from people throughout the world of sports. “I can’t wait to cheer for whatever lucky team that drafts @MikeSamFootball,” tweeted Jason Collins, the pro basketball player who said publicly last season that he is gay. Collins, a 35-year-old reserve center, came out after last season when he was a free agent and was not signed this season.
The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball are also awaiting their first openly gay players. Major League Soccer has its first in Robbie Rogers, a former U.S. national team player who played professionally in England. Rogers announced a year ago that he is gay as he said he was retiring. Rogers, now 26, has since joined the Los Angeles Galaxy.
“His courage will inspire millions to live their truth,” Rogers tweeted about Sam.
Sam, who received the high honor of being named a first-team All-American player, is projected to be picked somewhere in the middle of the National Football League draft in May, when former college players are selected by pro teams.
“Hopefully it will be the same like my locker room,” he told ESPN. “It’s a workplace.”
The NFL said in 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.”
There also were words of caution. Offensive lineman Frank Garcia, who played nine seasons (1995-2003) in the NFL with the Panthers, Rams and Cardinals, said Sam could face “huge challenges” in the league.
Garcia was teammates and close friends with defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo, who announced he is gay on HBO’s Real Sports in 2002 – three years after he left the NFL.
Garcia said although he and Tuaolo regularly hung out as teammates in Carolina in 1999, Tuaolo never once let on that he is gay.
“I think a lot of guys in the NFL are going to say they will accept it but there are a lot of guys who won’t,” said Garcia, now a sports radio show host with WFNZ-AM in Charlotte. “The reality is Michael Sam is going to open himself up to a lot of criticism and a lot of challenges. Those are challenges most gay people have to go through but when you are dealing with alpha males and some meatheads in an NFL locker room it’s amplified. And there are some guys who have strong religious beliefs, too, so he’s going to be judged. He’s going to face some things that are going to be very difficult to overcome.”
Sam played in the Senior Bowl for graduating stars last month after being named defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, traditionally the most competitive conference in college football.
A few NFL players have come out after their playing days, including Jamaican-born Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay.
Kopay’s 1977 best-selling memoir about being a closeted NFL player has been credited with inspiring other gay athletes and his coming out is ranked the No. 1 most important moment in gay sports history by Outsports.
Internationally, being openly gay is still rare in some sports, such as soccer, while women’s tennis stars began coming out decades ago.
Former English soccer player Justin Fashanu became the first active footballer to say openly that he was gay, in 1990. He committed suicide eight years later at age 37.
More recently, Swedish defender Anton Hysen came out in 2011. Last month, recently retired German star Thomas Hitzlsperger, 31, became the biggest name in soccer to say he is gay.
His decision to go public was hailed overwhelmingly as a positive step in the German media, as well as in Britain, reflecting the way attitudes have changed.
Martina Navratilova, one of the greatest tennis players ever, came out voluntarily in 1981 while in the prime of her career and is generally regarded as the first superstar athlete to do so. Navratilova has said she believes she lost at least $10 million in endorsement deals.
Tennis great Billie Jean King, on the other hand, was outed in 1981 near the end of her career and has said she was forced to continue playing pro tennis because she lost all of her endorsements.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.