NFL draft: Openly gay Michael Sam to make history

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam will become the first openly gay player in the NFL if he is drafted this weekend. Picture: AP
Missouri defensive end Michael Sam will become the first openly gay player in the NFL if he is drafted this weekend. Picture: AP
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Michael Sam’s name is unlikely to be called out on the first two days of the NFL Draft, but he stands to make history this weekend by becoming the first openly gay player on a professional American football team.

The 24-year-old defensive end from the University of Missouri publicly announced he was gay in a television interview at the start of February, an unprecedented step in a sport which has never had an openly homosexual player in its professional ranks.

His team-mates had known for months but Sam was keen to “own his truth” when it came to the rest of the world, to air his story before a draft process which sees representatives from NFL teams scrutinise every last detail of a prospect’s life.

Sam suddenly garnered huge attention. He attracted more journalists than anyone when interviewed at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis at the end of February, despite only being projected as a mid-to-late round selection for the seven-round draft which takes place in New York over the next three days.

“I just wish you guys would see me as ‘Michael Sam: the football player’, instead of ‘Michael Sam: the gay football player’,” he told the large throng in front of him.

The buzz has considerably died down since, though, with some experts suggesting a player who won a conference Defensive Player of the Year award last year may go undrafted amid fears he is too slow and too small.

Were that to happen, the NFL would have to face up to the elephant in the room – that everybody had passed on Sam because of his sexual orientation.

Only last year San Francisco 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver told journalists an openly gay player would not be welcome on their roster, comments which the five-times Super Bowl winners swiftly distanced themselves from.

However, on the other side of the Bay Bridge in Oakland, the Raiders’ London-born defensive lineman Jack Crawford disputes Culliver’s views and expects Sam to encounter no problems, regardless of where he lands.

“I think it’s come a lot more from the media than it has the players,” he said.

“I know different players have a lot of different views and maybe there’s certain religious reasons, I don’t know.

“I don’t think it’s important and I can’t see why it would be a problem in the locker room.

“I don’t get it – me personally, I don’t understand why it’s a problem.

“It’s a media thing so it’s probably going to be [a big story] the first year, then it’s going to blow over and no one will probably even remember about it this next year.”

Sam’s expected arrival into the NFL will come just months after a report into why Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins found he and another unnamed player were subjected to a “pattern of harassment” from team-mates including “racial insults” and “homophobic name-calling”.

That sorry incident painted a bleak picture of NFL locker-room culture but Crawford admits that, in his experience, players purely concentrate on what happens on the field.

“You’re trying to focus on winning football games and getting better,” he added. “It’s good for him [Sam] that he’s not afraid to be himself because that’s confidence and that’s what you need out there.

“I just think it’s a lot of media hype; if he can play, he’ll be all right.

“Football is what matters, other than that, I don’t care. As long as you’re not hurting anybody else, nobody cares what you do.”

Sam may have to wait until the third day to learn his fate, with only the first round due to take place last night before rounds two and three commence today in New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

The Houston Texans own the number one overall pick by virtue of having the worst record in the regular season last term. Four of the half-a-dozen teams who will play at Wembley next year – the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders, Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions – hold selections in the top ten.