Michael Sam is doing just fine -- now. This wasn't the case just a couple of years ago.
Two years after announcing that he was leaving professional football in 2015, Sam remembers a friend at a Christmas party noticing he was "laughing on the outside, but hurting on the inside."
It was the little spark -- that subtle acknowledgement from someone close who can see your pain beneath the surface, and brave enough to say so -- that eventually kicked off a period of self-discovery. A period of reading and reflection. Of traveling to Peru. Of trying ayahuasca.
But before all of that, before Sam came to terms with who he is now as a 29-year-old man, with his days on the field behind him, Sam said a short sentence that moved mountains: "I'm Michael Sam, I'm a football player, and I'm gay."
The words, shared in a New York Times video in February 2014, still echo in my mind. I remember this moment -- I remember Sam's soft blue button-down shirt. I remember his assured, velvety voice booming through my headphones and into my ears. I remember his energy emanating from my computer screen in my cubicle in an LA office building. I stared at his face, not quite believing what I was seeing. I remember the franticness to get the story up on advocate.com, where I was the managing editor at the time. I sensed I had a front-row seat to history being made. I remember feeling I would need to run 10 miles that night to exorcise all of the adrenaline coursing through my body.
Five years later, Sam's coming out and everything that followed continue to resonate -- just not for the reasons we thought it would. Sam entering the draft process as an openly gay man was a litmus test for acceptance of LGBTQ+ people as full people; for America's most profitable men's sports leagues and how ready they were for an openly gay player; for a media so eager to get the story without the ability to really understand it. Michael Sam was ready for us, but were we ready for him?
Men's Sports Just Seemed Like It Was The Next Frontier
This moment was a long time coming. A prospective NFL player just told the world that he is gay. By 2014, it felt like America was overdue to have an openly gay man playing in one of the big four American athletic leagues, the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. More than two-dozen players in professional football alone had come out over the years, but it was all after leaving the game. In 2013 alone, Olympic diver Tom Daley, WNBA player Brittney Griner, soccer players Abby Wabach and Robbie Rogers were among at least 77 athletes to come out, according to Outsports.
We know, of course, that Sam wouldn't be the only gay man in America's top-tier men's sports -- just the only out one. It's a numbers game. If about 4.5 percent of the general population identify as LGBTQ+, there's a good chance any of your favorite male athletes dunking a basketball or scoring a pivotal touchdown has been a queer man the whole time. If you broaden the scope to women's sports or individual sports like swimming or skiing for either gender, Sam was certainly no anomaly.
And yet, he was. The implications of having a gay or bisexual man playing at the top level of American sports was not lost on anyone at the time. Millions of people from coast to coast show unwavering allegiance to their NFL team each week, game in and game out, season after season, from cradle to grave. The popularity of the NFL meant a massive platform. Sports and the military were also considered two of the last bastions of heterosexual exclusivity -- and, well, the federal government has been dismantling "don't ask, don't tell." Men's sports had to be next.
"When I came out, I wasn't doing it for anyone," Sam told Out in late February. "I was just doing it for myself. I wasn't doing it for the LGBT community, I wasn't doing it for the black community, I wasn't trying to come out to change the world. My true coming out was to my teammates. Not to ESPN or anyone else. I was so happy that my school supported me so much that I felt like it was easy. I could live my life just like this."
A good handful of people knew it was coming. Students at Sam's University of Missouri knew. Hell, half of the staff of the college newspaper knew. Erik Hall, then a grad student and sports reporter for the Missourian, rattled off everyone he could recall who knew Sam was gay. Beyond the two football reporters, "there was a graphics guy that knew, the editors knew -- the sports editor knew, the managing editor knew, the video guy knew, the features editors knew, the design editor knew."
Hall said he wondered what could have happened if Sam came out to the Missourian. Potentially, he would have had his big story, Sam would have done a little more press, and then hunkered down to work on getting drafted by an NFL team. Sure, some teams, and individual players, and a couple of commentators would have a problem, but not all of them. As an SEC defensive player of the year (sharing that title with C.J. Mosley) he was most likely to be drafted in a middle round. Then he'd get to training camp and do well enough to join a team that fall.
Except, that is not at all what happened. A media circus happened instead.
When The Media Pounced and the NFL Recoiled
Now a contributor to Outsports who covers college athletes, Hall remembers seeing the story evolve from a scoop for the Missourian to a massive media story. "The two beat reporters would joke it was my fault that Michael Sam wouldn't talk to us," he told Out.
As ESPN's Katie Barnes remembers, Sam faced "an untenable situation." GLAAD assisted in helping get Sam's story told in a responsible manner. Rich Ferraro, the organization's Chief Communications Officer, said, "one of the early messages from GLAAD and from the sports world was that Michael should be judged by his athletic prowess and talent on the field, and not by what is happening off the field."
But the media, we couldn't help ourselves. In hindsight, of course a massive spotlight was shone on him because of who he was. "I don't think Michael was looking for all that attention," Ferraro adds. "I think he just wanted to play football, but he wanted to do it in an authentic way. And he knew that if he didn't tell his story, it would probably get out there either way."
To Sam, it became clear the reporters following him only cared about one thing. "The media forgot that what made me so inspiring -- they didn't know I had a backstory. They saw me as 'he was all-American and he's gay.' But they forgot that I had a rough childhood. I had to work to get out of my upbringing. I had to bust my ass in college and that story, my backstory, is actually the inspirational part."
Instead, he said, "They just focused on gay, gay, gay, gay, gay. It was seriously like 'who cares?! Who's the man behind that?' And that's what they failed to approach."
Mass media, though, was not completely to blame. The year before Sam told the world he was gay, it had been revealed that potential NFL rookies were still fielding intrusive, homophobic questions during the recruiting process (as of 2018, they still may have been). Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe found himself without a team after he became a vocal supporter of marriage equality.
The NFL is about making money, first and foremost. As former player and NFL consultant Wade Davis told me, "There are billions of dollars at stake" between contracts and endorsements, and all the other ways professional leagues and players generate cash. With hundreds of potential players who don't make the roster, what incentive would a team have to upset the apple cart and turn away fans, over one player?
"I think is hard if you're a gay or bisexual or queer professional athlete," Barnes said. "It's really hard to find those role models to come out and say, 'Hey, my livelihood won't be threatened.'"
The NFL -- and men's professional sports in general -- seemed to be fairly ready for a gay man to play but they also weren't. This gets to the point that critics made about Sam being deemed a "distraction."
At the time, the way the "distraction" label was placed on Sam was as though the fact that he was gay in and of itself was a distraction to any prospective team. But Davis explains that it's more about how outside forces would have distracted Sam from playing football cohesively with his team.
"Here's the truth about sports," Davis says. "Whether it's the NFL, NHL, what have you, coaches -- like parents -- want to control everything around you, because they want you to be focused on your sports. Now whether that's fair or unfair, it's not specific to Michael Sam, that's true of every athlete. Unless you're a first-round draft pick, you're not really guaranteed to make the team." So when you're a seventh-round draft pick, can you fulfill all these promises to camera crews, to countless media interviews, to photoshoots, to a Visa commercial, and to Oprah, and still make the team? Probably not.
"The NFL is hard. Training camp is hard," Davis adds. "It's not just hard physically, it's hard mentally, when you have to learn this big playbook where you feel like you're learning something weighty like Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In four weeks, you have to do this all on the field, at top speed, and you have to get up to the chalkboard and tell the coach what you learned yesterday."
There's simply no time for distraction. Something's gotta give. In this case, it was Sam's performance, specifically at the NFL Scouting Combine a few weeks after he came out.
At the combine, where prospective players show off their speed, agility, and strength through a battery of drills to teams, Sam had a pretty average showing. A few weeks later, his performance at the NFL Pro Day was much better -- but the question is, had the damage been done by then? Did it matter that his Pro Day performance should have been enough to eradicate any doubt that Sam would be fine as a rookie defense player? We'll never know, of course, but potentially not. By then, Sam's sexual orientation continued to remain front and center.
"When you talk to athletes who aren't out, they will tell you they don't want to be a 'gay football player,' they want to be a 'football player who also happens to be gay,'" Davis explained. "And that is a distinction for someone who has been playing this sport that has been their dominant identity before they knew they were gay, for many of them."
Paired with the "distraction" swarming Sam's every move, the machismo that characterizes football in America simply may not have been ready to have such a wrench thrown into its gears. But even still, it was simultaneously surprising and disappointing that when the NFL Draft finally rolled around in May, Sam's name was not called until the very end.
"The way I remember it is, there was definitely an expectation he would get drafted," Hall said. "You felt like he would be a last-day pick, but you thought he was a round four, five, or six pick, but that it went to the seventh round surprised a lot of us."
Sam went to training camp with the St. Louis Rams. Davis says he got a call from head coach Jeff Fisher almost immediately after Sam did; Fisher needed guidance on what it could mean to have America's first openly gay player as a rookie on his team. Many have claimed the team was forced into drafting Sam by the league. Fisher has denied this: "We had three seventh-round picks. When we drafted Michael, he was the best player on the board. Who in their right mind would think that you give up a draft choice to avoid doing something like that?"
But Sam tweeted in 2016 that he was "not surprised at all," by the theory. By the time he tweeted this, his football career had been over for a year.
Sam the College Athlete Versus Sam the Pro Athlete
Back when Sam came out to his college teammates in the summer of 2013, the amount of support he had was counter to every stereotype you could think of when it comes to homophobia and sports. "When I came out on the first day of camp," Sam remembers, "the next day Coach Pinkel invited me to his office, he congratulated me, and he said 'I'm with you, the team is with you" and he said "it's not about me, it's about this season.'"
That year, that team came together, all the way to the SEC championship. "I felt like the love from my brothers -- my teammates who I considered my brothers -- it felt like my duty to play hard for them every weekend, and it led me to have a very successful year," he said.
When he got to training camp in the NFL, the general attitude of both his teammates on the Rams and later the Cowboys, was quite a contrast. "Chris Long is the only one who supported me vocally, and it was when a reporter was asked him about how I was adjusting after college, and the reporter asked him, 'How is he in the shower?' And Chris Long went to bat for me. That was a leader and a true teammate." Outside of this run-in, however, Sam says "I didn't have a lot of vocal support from my teammates. They supported me in their own way, but it would have been different if they supported me vocally."
During his time at Rams training camp, Sam seemed to be picking up speed and doing well -- at least from the outside. Getting cut from the Rams was surprising. There was hope when the Dallas Cowboys added him to their practice squad, but that was over after seven weeks. Sam then joined Canadian Football League, but his tenure with the Montreal Alouettes never quite got off the ground. By 2015, Sam announced he was retiring from football, citing his mental health.
It wasn't until months after he came out that Sam says he "realized the importance of what I did. And how many people were rooting for me. Was there pressure? Yes, but there was also responsibility. To prove that people who are LGBTQ could play at this high level, you don't have to hide yourself anymore. I had a lot of support from the LGBT community."
I published a column for The Advocate just four days after he came out. The piece itself is pretty measured. It's the headline that is burned in my brain: "Michael Sam, Our Great Gay Hope." Within hours, I was feeling that worried pang in the pit of my stomach, that he wouldn't make it to the regular season. That headline has haunted me ever since.
LGBTQ+ America -- progressive America -- pinned so many hopes on Sam. It wasn't just the NFL who failed to see they could have made history with a decent enough player. It wasn't just the media who chewed him up and spit him out. It wasn't the people within the sport who couldn't be bothered to show their support. It wasn't just his representatives who treated him like an act in a dog and pony show (who, incidentally, Sam publicly fired, perhaps too late). It was us. It was me, too.
"I think in some ways, the community has to accept some ownership for the demands and the pressure that were put on Michael to succeed," Barnes said.
The pressure is incredibly great for someone under such a microscope. "I think it's an unfair ask for an athlete who is so young, to stand in front of the world and be ready to talk eloquently about his struggle," Davis said. "There are three asks happening at the same time, specifically if they're a person of color: You have to represent your race, you have to represent your sport, and you have to represent your sexual orientation, all at the exact same time and do all of them flawlessly."
So this leaves us with an asterisk next to Sam's name in the record books and professional roster upon professional roster without one openly gay or bisexual man's name. If there's any hope to be had, though, it's in the generation of young athletes after Sam.
"The year after Michael Sam, there were a ton of LGBT athletes who said they saw how people talked about him, and it made them feel more comfortable," Hall recalled. "So Michael definitely had an influence in people coming out. There's no question on that. Michael had a positive influence on people coming out and a lot of athletes coming out, and people being comfortable with who they are. But with conversations with other people in the gay community, there has been a perceived chilling effect on other professional athletes coming out."
At the time that Sam came out, "there was sensationalism, and sometimes insensitivity, and sometimes ignorance," Barnes recalls, "But [now] I think largely, at the big media outlets, a lot of that would be better. The conversation has evolved as such that we wouldn't be talking about, you know, 'What's going to happen in the locker room?' which is something that was talked about with Michael Sam. We're just not there anymore. I think the best case scenario would be that it wouldn't be a huge giant story. But it will be, if and when that happens, it will be incumbent on the media to respond in a responsible, ethical manner."
Davis says coaches will be better equipped to do a better job, simply by having a better sense of elevating a player's humanity over his sexual identity. Then, because of the sheer proximity of more LGBTQ+ people to athletes now than there were five years ago, more allies in the sports world will emerge. "We forget that these athletes are have LGBT brothers, sisters, parents," and other people in their lives. "What I believe is different now, is that athletes if they personally identify as gay, you will see more athletes tweeting and openly embracing this athlete, whereas before, when he was drafted it was crickets. I think we're in a different era where now, the other athletes will be more like, 'Great -- now let's play.'"
Hall recently interviewed Kyle Goodwin, a gay diver from Sam's alma mater, Mizzou. He asked him, "Did Michael Sam influence you?" And Goodwin replied, "I didn't know who Michael Sam was until I got to Missouri." On the flip side, Hall also interviewed Kyle Kurdziolek, a football player last year from St. Francis University in Joliet, Illinois, who was the first scholarship player to come out publicly. "He said Michael Sam was a huge influence on him coming out," Hall said.
Both Hall and Barnes agree that a shift toward accepting a gay player might be generational. "I'm hopeful that as players come out younger and younger, it will dilute the story, and allow people to just play and be out," Barnes said.
These days, Sam makes public appearances, speaking to college students across the country, hoping to instill the lessons learned and wisdom earned on and off the field. Sam said he's working on a book. He's in the early stages of launching a foundation. He's on what he describes as a never-ending process of ensuring his own mental, emotional, and physical well-being. Looking back, the advice he would give the next potential gay football player, is that he should come out in his own time.
"I sacrificed my career for me to live my life," he says. "That being said, it also helped a lot of people in the process. I have to believe that it helped people. Football gave me so much. It was my dream. If I could save some lives by sacrificing my career, that's what I have, and I am grateful for it."