Former football player Sam says his sexuality forced him to prove himself

Former NFL player Michael Sam speaks at Arizona State University about his experiences being a gay football player. (Photo by Alex Simon/GlobalSport Matters)

Resilience.

Former football player Michael Sam says sexuality should not define an athlete’s ability or worth

That’s the word Michael Sam used to describe the biggest takeaway from his coming out experience.

“These past five years, I healed. I healed mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” Sam told GlobalSports Matters.

The former football player discussed his family, masculinity, sexuality and football with GlobalSport Matters and guests at a Feb. 14 ASU event entitled, “Masculinity, Identity, & Moving Forward: I Am Michael Sam.”

In 2014, Sam made headlines when he publicly came out as gay. He became the first openly gay football player to be drafted in the NFL. However, with that announcement came adversity.

To fully understand Sam’s experience and takeaways, you must start from the beginning.

It started in college. While Sam was at the University of Missouri, he confronted his sexual identity. He came out to his teammates in 2013.

“It was my time. I was ready to,” he said.

And, although his team knew of rumors circulating about his sexuality, Sam’s experience with his sexual identity, along with a fairy-tale relationship with his ex-boyfriend, made it easy for him to discuss.

“I thought my senior year was the perfect time to tell my team, and after that, I had the best year of my college career.”

His teammates’ reaction to his coming out was positive.

“Since my teammates respected me, and were behind me and supported me… I felt that I owed them to give them my best.”

Sam officially came out to his parents in the February 2014, although he had already been out for a while in college. It is common for many families, especially African-American families, to not accept gay family members. Sam’s experience was no different.

“When I came out to them, my dad pretty much disowned me, and my mom hasn’t acknowledged the fact that I’m still LGBTQ,’’ Sam said. “To this day, we don’t talk about it.”

Despite not having the support of his parents, Sam forged ahead. He had been taking care of himself since he was 16.

“I was my own man.”

Sam came out publicly months before the NFL draft. That’s when the media frenzy surrounded him. The news of his sexuality overshadowed his football talents.

“I was upset,” he said. “They said that I was the distraction. The media made me the distraction. They forgot all about what I’ve done in college; they forgot my performance during the preseason, which I led my team in sacks… They forgot all of that, and they just continued to focus on my sexuality.”

So would his career have been different had he not come out before the draft? The answer to that is yes.

“I think if the media would have not paid too much attention on my sexuality, I would be still playing. That could be a huge factor of me still playing,” he said.

When he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, he entered a league known for its roughness and strong, sometimes toxic, masculinity. With that came a homophobic experience. But Sam handled it with dignity.

“It was handled on the field. It was never brought into the locker room, and I believe my teammates actually respected me, and how I handled the situation. I did handle the situation and there was an apology, and I accepted the apology and we moved on.”

On the field in college, Sam felt comfortable with himself and how he played. He was confident in his skills. However, in the NFL, he felt like his sexuality forced him to prove himself as a key player.

“In the NFL… I believe that I had to prove that, being gay, being an out gay person, I can play football at that high level.”

But feeling that you must prove yourself, because of your sexual orientation, shouldn’t happen. So, Sam believes that changing the culture of sports, and its acceptance of different people, starts at the top.

“Managements and organizations… they need to make sure that they have education and to make sure that this is a safe place to be who you are. I think it always starts up top. Also the players. The players need to be more vocal and supportive. There’s too many players that are, but silent.”

Eventually Sam left the NFL and had a brief career in the CFL. However, according to CBS Sports, Sam retired from football for mental health reasons.

Sam was not the first or the only gay athlete in professional sports. He wasn’t even the first openly gay athlete in sports— only the NFL. Because of changing times, Sam believes the acceptance level in the NFL for the next openly gay athlete will be different.

“It has to be different, and I hope they’ve learned from the situation they’ve put me through. I’ve been through a journey… It’s been tough. Hopefully, they will learn.”

Katelyn Oates is a journalism major at Arizona State University