Tolerance is about to be tested in the National Football League.
And Michael Sam hopes his ability is all that matters, not his sexual orientation.
Missouri’s All-America defensive end came out to the entire country Sunday night and could become the first openly gay player in America’s most popular sport.
“I just want to go to the team who drafts me,” Sam told ESPN in an interview that aired Sunday, “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.”
Nobody has ever done this before.
In interviews with ESPN, The New York Times and Outsports, Sam said publicly for the first time that he was gay. He said he came out to his teammates and coaches at Missouri in August.
Sam will participate in the NFL combine later this month in Indianapolis and is projected to be a mid-round draft pick in May.
“Hopefully it will be the same like my locker room,” he told ESPN. “It’s a workplace. If you’ve ever been in a Division I or pro locker room, it’s a business place. You want to act professional.”
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. Personally I hope he goes to my favorite team. The Colts” tweeted Jason Collins, the pro basketball player who said publicly last season that he is gay.
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 good friends with defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo, who announced he was 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 was 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.”
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam participated in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month after leading the Southeastern Conference in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). He was the SEC defensive player of the year.
Division III Willamette kicker Conner Mertens, a redshirt freshman, said last month he was bisexual.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the NFL said in statement. “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.”
Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams tweeted: “I could care less about a man’s sexual preference! i care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!”
Williams’ teammate, cornerback Drayton Florence, posted on his Twitter account: “No comment but it can be a distraction in the locker room. At least he’s open with it much respect!”