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How does coming out by openly gay NFL prospect Michael Sam reflect changing attitudes?

February 10, 2014 at 6:14 PM EDT
With the National Football League draft a few months away, University of Missouri football standout Michael Sam came out as gay to the national media Sunday. Judy Woodruff talks to ESPN’s Kevin Blackistone and Wade Davis of the You Can Play Project about challenges Sam could face as he stands to be the NFL’s first openly gay, active player.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The professor football player draft isn’t until May, but the news today about one potential prospect has meaning that promises to go far wider in the league and in professional sports.

MICHAEL SAM, NFL prospect: I came to tell the world that I’m an openly, proud gay man.

JUDY WOODRUFF: University of Missouri football star Michael Sam broke the news Sunday night in interviews with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” The New York Times and Outsports.

MICHAEL SAM: It is a load off my chest. I told my teammates this past August that — I came out to my teammates. And they took it great. They rallied around me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The All American defensive end now stands to become the National Football League’s first openly gay active player after the draft takes place in May. Sam says he hopes his sexual orientation will be a nonissue.

MICHAEL SAM: It shouldn’t matter.

If I can — if I work hard, if I make plays, that is all that should matter. Can they — can he help us win games?  Is he a team play ever?  That’s all that should matter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The NFL responded with a statement on its Web site that said: “Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams agreed, saying, all that matters is winning games and being respectful in the locker room.

And, today, first lady Michelle Obama tweeted her support for Sam, saying: “You’re an inspiration to all of us. We couldn’t be prouder of your courage, both on and off the field.”

But Herm Edwards, former head coach for the New Jersey Jets and Kansas City Chiefs, sounded a warning note that Sam could prove a distraction.

HERM EDWARDS, Former NFL head coach: He’s bringing baggage into your locker room. So when you think about Michael Sam, all of a sudden, can the players handle the media attention that they’re going to get?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Assuming he’s drafted, Sam will join a small number of professional athletes who have chosen to come out while still playing. Basketball star Brittney Griner did so last year, after she became the number one pick in the Women’s National Basketball Association draft. And basketball backup center Jason Collins out last April while with the Washington Wizards of the NBA. The 35-year-old is not playing with a team this season.

The Michael Sam announcement does raise plenty of questions about how the NFL, its players and Sam himself will deal with all this.

We explore that with Wade Davis, a former NFL player who came out as gay after he retired. He is the executive director of the You Can Play Project, an advocacy group working for equality for LGBT athletes in sports. He spoke with Sam before his announcement. And Kevin Blackistone, he’s a panelist for ESPN who teaches sport journalism at the University of Maryland.

We welcome both of you.

Wade Davis, to you first.

You did talk with Michael Sam. Help us — do you know why he chose to do this right now?

WADE DAVIS, You Can Play Project: You know, one of the big things that Michael wanted to do was give executives, teams time to really evaluate him as a player and also have those hard conversations about what would it mean to draft a gay player.

He wasn’t trying to hide anything. He also believes that what team wouldn’t want a player with the courage and strength that he has exhibited? I think that all teams want players who exhibit great leadership and great courage. And that’s all that Michael has done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How important a move do you think this is?

WADE DAVIS: I think, to a lot of people, it’s an important move. And to Michael, it was something that was — he understood the gravity of it, but he wasn’t overwhelmed by it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean?

WADE DAVIS: That he understood that this was a big deal as far as being the first openly gay NFL player. But, to him, he had — he was just — just doing something he’s always done, fought to fight through adversity, show up with a courageous heart and be himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Blackistone, how do you weigh the significance of what — of this announcement?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE, University of Maryland: I think it is very significant. I think it is more significant for the NFL than it is for Michael Sam.

A lot of people have asked about the hurdles that he is going to have to overcome when he gets in the league. But he has said he is very comfortable with who he is. He is a college graduate. He’s black. And the third thing is, he is gay, as if we need to know his sexual orientation.

He was voted the MVP on his team by his teammates. He was one of the best football players in the SEC this past year. It is the NFL which has been homophobic for so long, one of the strongest bastions of homophobia in our society, that is going to have to deal with this, the executives who are going to have to decide whether to bring him into their franchise, coaches who are going to have to decide how to fit him into the fabric of the team, and teammates who are going to have to decide how to embrace him.

Those are the real hurdles in this situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s explore that for just a moment.

What do you expect? I mean, what happens now? The draft, as we said, is not until May. It’s several months off.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What happens at this point? Do the owners who may be interested in him, what…

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, the first thing that is going to happen is, he is being to be the center of attention at the NFL combine in April, which is when all the draft-eligible players hoping to get into the NFL show up and work out for all the scouts and the coaches.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Literally work out?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Literally work out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They show them what they can…

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Exactly. And now it’s a televised event.

So this is going to be the most anticipated NFL combine in the history of the NFL. After he gets through that will come the draft. And everybody will wait to see whether or not his situation and what he said about his personal life impacts what the rest of the league and the teams and the coaches and executives think about them.

Already today, not more than 24 hours into this story, we have already heard rumors about this guy, Michael Sam, the SEC defensive player of the year, by far the best college football conference in the country, that his draft status has started to slip, simply because of this announcement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you — Wade Davis, do you think that’s the case, that his draft status — I know it’s speculation, but what is your sense of that?

WADE DAVIS: I would disagree with Michael a little bit.

I think that — I’m sorry — Kevin. I think that we make these broad assumptions that the NFL is a homophobic place. But what I have experienced since I have come out and the work that I have been allowed to do with the NFL has been great.

You know, I think that what happens is that we don’t see players who are out, and we make this broad assumption that they must be out because this place is homophobic. But players weren’t out in college. Players were not out in high school. So that speaks more about what our country needs to do as a whole more than it does what is wrong with the NFL.

And I’m also a person that knows that players in the NFL have to deal with players of different races, different classes, different religions, and they make it work. And it is not cotton candy and lollipops, right? But it is a time where players have friction, and they can make fun of each other. They protect each other from everyone else.

And I think that Sam has proven that by playing in the SEC, in one of the toughest conferences, that his teammates accepted him. And these are the same players who will be playing on Sunday. So I think that we do have to give athletes a lot more credit and say, hey, some of them may be homophobic, but a lot of them have gay brothers, gay sisters, gay cousins, and have experienced playing with someone who is gay.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kevin Blackistone, do you think attitudes could be changing?

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Well, I think Wade touches on something here.

I was talking to a friend of mine who has a lot to do with the league and is a former player. And he pointed out that, you know, the league is a very young league, and it has been getting younger year after year after year, and that there are a lot more players now who have played with gay players, maybe in high school, certainly have gay friends that they know from high school and college, that sort of thing.

And so maybe they are a little bit more tolerant than their predecessors. Having said that, I still believe that the NFL has been and is a homophobic operation, given the fact that the only people we know of who have been gay and played in the league are people who have come out afterwards to say that they survived that environment. So, hopefully, Michael Sam can change that environment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wade Davis, is Michael Sam prepared, again — based on your talking with him, is he prepared? What is he prepared to face in the months to come?

WADE DAVIS: Well, first of all, he doesn’t think he is going to face anything that he didn’t already face in college.

You know, I would say probably 20 to 30 percent of the NFL is made up of guys who played in the SEC. So it’s not like he came from this small school, all right? And he also was the captain of his team. So he knows what it is like to be a leader. He knows what it is like to deal with adversity.

He’s also understanding that it’s also his responsibility to protect his teammates, that there is going to be a player or two that may say something homophobic, but he is not going to run to the principal or to the media and say, hey, this guy said this and this guy said that. These are going to be his brothers. He’s going to earn their trust by his play off the field and showing up as other players do off the field.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we have to leave it there. It is a subject I know we’re going to spend more time on.

But, tonight, Wade Davis, we thank you.

Kevin Blackistone, thank you.


WADE DAVIS: Thank you so much.