Almost universal praise greeted a top NFL prospect’s announcement on Sunday night that he was gay, marking him out as a barrier-breaker in the conservative sport.
But there wasn’t quite the same support at the all-important executive level, where Michael Sam will hope to convince team officials that his talent will outweigh his place in history.
The defensive star at the University of Missouri came out to his team-mates last summer but fended off the efforts of local media until a well-crafted telling of his story to The New York Times and ESPN, assuring maximum publicity at an opportune moment, giving the story plenty of time to settle before the recruitment business swings back into gear at the end of the month.
“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told the Times. “I just want to own my truth.”
Missouri’s swashbuckling side finished with a 12-2 record and won the Cotton Bowl, one of the top prizes in college football. He was recognised nationally for his contribution while also being named by the Associated Press as defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference. Most importantly of all, less than a year after he revealed his sexuality to his teammates, those same teammates voted him their most valuable player for the season.
In a surprising turn-up, the NFL will now be the only major US sporting body with a publicly gay player in their ranks after former NBA player Jason Collins failed to find a new team after he came out last year.
“We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage,” the NFL said in a statement. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
But there were plenty dissenting voices among individual teams who anonymously told Sports Illustrated that Sam had damaged his pro career, at least in the short term.
“I don’t think football is ready... just yet,” an NFL player personnel assistant told the magazine. “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.”
According to The New York Times, several team scouts recently asked Sam’s agent whether the player had a girlfriend or was seen with women.
“I’m not naive,” Sam insisted. “I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine (a trial for draft prospects just out of college) and play in the NFL.”
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