Though that fact is not earth-shattering in and of itself, Sam’s revelation sparked an avalanche of contentious debates and varied reactions as observers wondered what Sam’s sexuality could mean for football.
After all, it is one of the most heteronormative and hypermasculine sports in the world, where manhood is often measured by how viciously you can attack another man and homoantagonism and homoeroticism often collide.
Sam didn’t forewarn the media because he rightfully wanted to control the narrative.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” said Mr. Sam, who spoke with ESPN, The New York Times and a few other select outlets on Sunday. “I just want to own my truth.”
Mr. Sam said he began to wonder if he was gay in his early teens, though he had a girlfriend in high school. It was after he arrived at Missouri in 2009 that he realized for certain that he was gay. Teammates increasingly suspected as much, and some knew that he dated a man on the university’s swim team, but it never prevented Mr. Sam from being one of the most popular players on the team. He was known for his intensity on the field and his booming voice off it.
“When I first met him, you could be downstairs and you could hear Mike all the way on the second floor of the dorms,” said receiver L’Damian Washington, who met Mr. Sam on a recruiting trip and quickly became a close friend. “He’s just a loud guy. Everybody knows when Michael Sam is in the building.”
Mr. Sam came out to two of his friends on the team, Mr. Washington and Marvin Foster, about a year ago. It was not a huge surprise. Mr. Washington was with Mr. Sam when Mr. Sam said he needed to go pick up a friend. He told Mr. Washington that the friend was gay and asked Mr. Washington if that would bother him. Mr. Washington said no, and Mr. Sam came out to him.
“Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others,” Missouri’s football coach, Gary Pinkel, said in a statement released Sunday night. “He’s taught a lot of people here firsthand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”
The NFL released the following statement of support:
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the N.F.L. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
Sam said that once he came out to his teammates, he didn’t care who else knew, but no one has ever asked him.
“I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not,” Sam joked.
As previously reported by NewsOne, in April of last year, NBA player Jason Collins became the first pro-athlete of any sports organization to come out as gay.