NFL could have its first openly gay player

11:37 AM, Feb 10, 2014   |    comments
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Associated Press - The barrier may finally be broken.

Michael Sam, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year from Missouri, told multiple outlets on Sunday he is gay, likely making the draft-eligible lineman the first openly gay player in NFL history next season.

Sam, who spoke publicly about his sexual orientation for the first time - with ESPN, the New York Times and Outsports.com - is expected to be selected in the middle rounds of this year's NFL Draft.

If Sam is drafted, he would become the first openly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American sports. Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran, came out after last season, but was not signed by a team this season.

Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay male athlete to play for a professional team in the U.S., with the L.A. Galaxy of the MLS.

Collins tweeted Sunday night he had met with Sam over the last few days in Los Angeles and said he has shown "tremendous courage and leadership." Collins also tweeted he hopes Sam is drafted by his favorite team, the Colts.

"I understand how big this is," Sam said. "It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be. ... I want to be a football player in the NFL."

Though the league has a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, the known presence of a gay player on a team could be divisive. Former Vikings punter, Chris Kluwe, said he dealt with homophobic language from coaches and believed he was released last spring for his outspoken support of same-sex marriage.

Last week, veteran Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma said he believed a gay player would have trouble fitting in in the locker room.

"I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted," Vilma told NFL.com.

The NFL released a statement supporting Sam's dream of playing in the league, praising his honesty and courage. Giants co-owner Steve Tisch shared a similar message.

"Michael Sam is a gifted athlete and a courageous man," Tisch said. "I hope any NFL team would not hesitate to draft Michael if he is right for their team."

Tisch hopes, but there is no certainty. According to a report from SI.com, multiple NFL coaches and executives believe Sam's announcement will negatively impact his potential earnings and ostracize him from teammates.

"I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said an NFL player personnel assistant. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It'd chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."

An NFC general manager told The Post the announcement would hurt his draft stock because the relentless media coverage could be seen as a distraction that would prevent teams from drafting him, if a player with similar skills is available in the draft.

"I'm sure it will be a negative in the eyes of some teams," the general manager said. "He was probably a middle-round guy before this, and I wouldn't be surprised if it causes him to drop a little more. You worry about bringing in a kid who could be a big distraction or cause an issue in your locker room. It only takes one team, though."

Sam, 24, had already come out to his teammates in August, but decided to come out publicly after the recent Senior Bowl, where Sam felt many people knew he was gay, including scouts, who asked his agent if he had a girlfriend or had been seen with women.

"I didn't realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me," he said. "I want to own my truth. ... No one else should tell my story but me."

Sam's story began in the small town of Hitchcock, Texas, where as one of eight children, he experienced a difficult childhood.

"I endured so much in my past: Seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, not knowing that my oldest sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet her. My second oldest brother went missing in 1998, and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him. ... My other two brothers have been in and out of jail since 8th grade, currently both in jail.

"Telling the world I'm gay is nothing compared to that."

The 6-foot-2, 260-pound lineman said he was initially scared to tell his teammates last summer, but soon learned most of them already knew. Sam couldn't have been happier with their reactions, and did not ask them to keep it a secret.

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