Michael Sam's support of his teammates and coaches is an important part of his story. Photo: USA Today Sports
On Sunday we learned Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, an All-American and SEC Defensive Player of the Year, is gay. According to the New York Times, Sam announced his sexuality to his teammates before the start of the 2013 season, confirming the suspicions of some of his teammates. That this story managed to stay under wraps all season is something incredible, and a testament to the team unity that must have been a part of the confidence and security Sam had in coming out.
“We’re really happy for Michael that he’s made the decision to announce this, and we’re proud of him and how he represents Mizzou," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said in a statement released by the university. "Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he’s taught a lot of people here first-hand 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."
Fortunately for Sam, he was surrounded by coaches, leaders and teammates who were willing to support him in a way that may be the bigger story. For a development like this to go unmentioned in the public for an entire season that saw Missouri placed under the BCS microscope in the most covered conference in the country is nearly unfathomable. Yet, this is what team is all about.
"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," Pinkel said. He may be right.
Sam led the SEC in sacks with 11.5 and tackles for loss with 19. He was named SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was a huge factor in Missouri going 11-1 in the regular season and making a run to the SEC Championship Game and ending the season with a victory in the Cotton Bowl. It was one of the most successful seasons in program history, and Sam played a huge role in it.
"Looking back, I take great pride in how Michael and everyone in our program handled his situation," Pinkel said. "This past August, Michael was very direct with the team when he decided to let everyone know that he is gay. We discussed how to deal with that from a public standpoint, and ultimately Michael decided that he didn’t want that to be the focal point of the season. He wanted to focus on football and not do anything to add pressure for him or for his teammates, and I think that’s a great example of the kind of person he is."
Coming out is perhaps one of the most emotional and stressful moments in the lives of the LGBT community. That can be even more difficult for a male athlete, especially in a sport with such a macho culture. In the past couple of months though, the doors seem to be opening up for a gay football player to feel as much a part of the team as ever before.
Sam's news comes about a month after Division 3 kicker from Williamette University, Conner Mertens, announced to his teammates that he is bisexual. This made Mertens the first openly gay or bisexual player in college football history. His coming out was a huge development for the sport. Missouri's Sam took thing to the next level by now being the first openly gay player to have played major college football, although it had not become common knowledge until after his final game.
Now the world awaits the next major barrier to be cleared. That would be to see a gay college football player at a major program in a major conference. It will happen one day. Here's hoping that if that player or those players are out there now that Mertens and Sam will have opened the door for them to step forward.