Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam hopes to be the first openly gay player in the NFL, which is about to have its tolerance tested, ready or not.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the NFL said in a statement Sunday night, minutes after the publishing of two media interviews in which Sam revealed he is gay.
“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.”
REACTION: Athletes and fans rally around Sam
But will NFL teams look at Sam — a first-team USA TODAY All-America selection this past fall — any differently now that he’s forging into uncharted waters?
It didn’t seem to faze Sam’s teammates at Missouri, whom he informed of his sexual orientation before last season and then went out and led the Southeastern Conference with 11½ sacks.
“I think we learned a lot about football players,” Domonique Foxworth, the NFL Players Association president, told USA TODAY Sports via text message. “And we will soon learn something about the NFL.”
Two executives in personnel for NFL teams, speaking on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons, told USA TODAY Sports they had Sam rated as a third-day prospect even before Sunday’s announcement and didn’t think it would have a substantive impact on his status.
“I applaud him for it,” one of the executives said. “I’m pretty confident people won’t care.”
COMING OUT: Is the NFL ready for its first gay player?
Of course, saying that and actually drafting a guy who’s set himself up as a trailblazer are two different things, particularly with a player who isn’t regarded as an elite prospect.
The next test for Sam and NFL teams comes next week in Indianapolis, where Sunday’s announcement is sure to draw an unusual spotlight from league executives and reporters at the scouting combine.
“I’m not naïve,” Sam told the New York Times. “I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the NFL.”
PHOTOS: MICHAEL SAM’S CAREER AT MISSOURI
A Hitchcock, Texas, native, Sam made his watershed announcement via interviews with ESPN and the Times that were published simultaneously Sunday night.
He said he went public now in part because many seemed aware of his sexual orientation at the Senior Bowl two weeks ago.
“I didn’t realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me,” Sam told ESPN. “I want to own my truth. … No one else should tell my story but me.”
He celebrated in advance by having dinner Saturday with a group that included former NFL running back Dave Kopay, who was one of the first ex-players to come out as gay, and former punter Chris Kluwe and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who both have been outspoken in their support of gay rights.
“He’s very much a good kid, very passionate about football and well-spoken,” Kluwe told USA TODAY Sports. “I think he’ll do great.”
Though no NFL player has announced publicly he’s gay while his career is active, several former players — including Esera Tuaolo, Kwame Harris and Wade Davis — have said they’re gay after retiring.
“Michael is first and foremost a talented football player, and his humility and heart will reshape the way that Americans think about LGBT people and the sports world,” Davis, who now serves as executive director of LGBT sports organization You Can Play, said in a statement.
“His story sends a message to LGBT young people, especially young black men, that you are free to show up in the world as your authentic self and others will embrace you. When I came out after playing in the NFL, I felt the suuport from fans, teammates and the league and I know he will be embraced and continue to inspire.”
Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the advocacy organization GLAAD, said in a statement Sam “has demonstrated the leadership that, along with his impressive skills on the field, makes him a natural fit for the NFL. With acceptance of LGBT people rising across our coasts — in our schools, churches and workplaces — it’s clear America is ready for an openly gay football star.”
The NFL has been preparing for this moment. In April, the NFL sent a sexual orientation anti-discrimination and harassment policy to all club presidents, coaches and general managers, who shared it with their staffs. The collective-bargaining agreement also includes anti-discrimination language.
The support shown by Sam’s Missouri teammates — some of whom joined the social media outpouring on his behalf Sunday night — is one positive sign football may be ready.
“Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement. “He’s taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn’t matter what your background is or your personal oreientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.
“If Michael doesn’t have the support of his teammates like he did this past year, I don’t think there’s any way he has the type of season he put together.”
Said Foxworth: “That is what being a team, a man, a brother is all about. I’m proud to be linked to those men even if our link is only that we both played football. This is the same level of support I expect a gay player to receive from teammates in the NFL.”
Follow national NFL reporter Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.