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Openly Gay NFL Prospect Michael Sam Is a Test for the League

Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers celebrates with fans after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 9, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky
Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers celebrates with fans after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 9, 2013 in Lexington, KentuckyPhotograph by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Michael Sam, an All-American defensive lineman from the University of Missouri, came out publicly yesterday. “I am an openly, proud gay man,” he told ESPN. Sam is preparing for the NFL draft in May, and if he’s chosen, he’ll be the first publicly gay player in the league. His status as a pioneer was complicated even before it began. The first problem, as this account from OutSports shows, was managing the press. Sam’s teammates at Missouri have known since last summer. In the past few weeks, NFL scouts had begun asking not-very-subtle questions about Sam’s personal life, and a handful of news outlets had caught wind of the story. They waited to let Sam break the news, as he chose, to ESPN and the New York Times.

That delicate process was only the beginning. Sam aims to enter a workplace where the culture is often less than progressive, violence is a part of the job, nudity is routine, teamwork is paramount, and a fuzzy border between hazing and harassment is frequently crossed. Sam’s status as an openly gay man shouldn’t change his NFL experience, but it inevitably will. The NFL has put out a statement welcoming Sam, and many players have expressed support. Yet there is already an anonymous chorus of NFL insiders saying that the league is “not ready.”