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USA TODAY

Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam hopes to be the first openly gay player in the NFL, which is about to have its tolerance tested, ready or not.

"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the NFL said in a statement Sunday night, minutes after the publishing of two media interviews in which Sam revealed he's gay.

"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 will NFL teams look at Sam any differently now that he's forging into uncharted waters?

"I think we learned a lot about football players," Domonique Foxworth, the NFL Players Association president, told USA TODAY Sports via text message. "And we will soon learn something about the NFL."

Sam made his watershed announcement in interviews with ESPN and The New York Times that revealed he came out to his Missouri teammates before last season, when he led the Southeastern Conference with 111/2 sacks and was named the league's defensive player of the year.

Two executives in personnel for NFL teams, speaking on condition of anonymity for competitive reasons, told USA TODAY Sports they had Sam rated as a third-day prospect before the announcement and didn't think it would have a substantive impact.

"I applaud him for it," one of the executives said. "I'm pretty confident people won't care."

Of course, saying that and actually drafting a guy who has set himself up as a trailblazer are two different things, particularly with a player who isn't regarded as an elite prospect.

The next test for Sam and NFL teams comes next week at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, where the announcement is sure to draw an unusual spotlight from league executives and reporters.

"I'm not naïve," Sam told The Times. "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 and play in the NFL."

Sam celebrated in advance by having dinner Saturday with a group that included former NFL running back Dave Kopay, who was one of the first ex-players to come out as gay, and former NFL punter Chris Kluwe and linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, who both have been outspoken in their support of gay rights.

"He's very much a good kid, very passionate about football and well-spoken," Kluwe told USA TODAY Sports. "I think he'll do great."

Though no NFL player has announced publicly he's gay while his career is ongoing, several former players -- including Kopay, Esera Tuaolo, Kwame Harris and Wade Davis -- have said they're gay after retiring.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the advocacy group GLAAD, said in a statement, "With acceptance of LGBT people rising across our coasts -- in our schools, churches and workplaces -- it's clear that America is ready for an openly gay football star."

The NFL has been preparing for this moment. In April, the league sent a sexual orientation anti-discrimination and harassment policy to all teams. The collective bargaining agreement also includes anti-discrimination language.

The support shown by Sam's Missouri teammates is one positive sign football might be ready.

"That is what being a team, a man, a brother is all about," Foxworth said. "I'm proud to be linked to those men even if our link is only that we both played football. This is the same level of support I expect a gay player to receive from teammates in the NFL."

 

February 10, 2014

 

 
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