Tolerance is about to be tested in the National Football League.
And Michael Sam hopes his ability is all that matters, not his sexual orientation.
Missouri's All-America defensive end came out to the entire country Sunday night and could become the first openly gay player in America's most popular sport.
"I just want to go to the team who drafts me," Sam told ESPN in an interview that aired Sunday, "because that team knows about me, knows that I'm gay, and also knows that I work hard. That's the team I want to go to."
Nobody has ever done this before.
The AP's Paul Newberry writes:
Michael Sam could've taken the - well, not the easy, but certainly the easier - way out by staying mum on his sexual orientation, at least until after the NFL draft.
Instead, one of the nation's top college football players bravely decided to speak now, to tell the world he is gay at a time when NFL teams are grading the guys they'll be picking in a couple of months.
This is not Jason Collins, as courageous as he was, coming out at the end of his NBA career. This is a young man just getting started as a professional, after leading Missouri to one of the best seasons in school history.
Finally, we'll get to see how this plays out, an openly gay player lining up in America's most popular sport. Finally, we'll get to see what barriers we've broken down and, more important, what hurdles remain when someone acknowledges they are gay, then competes with and against guys who may be repelled by the notion of having a relationship with another man.
Because of Sam, it will be easier for the next guy. And the guy after that. But for all the progress this country has made in gay rights, there will surely be plenty of ugliness in the weeks and months and years to come.
"The reality is: Michael Sam is going to open himself up to a lot of criticism and a lot of challenges," said former NFL offensive lineman Frank Garcia, now a sports radio show host in Charlotte. "Those are challenges most gay people have to go through, but when you are dealing with alpha males and some meatheads in an NFL locker room, it's amplified. And there are some guys who have strong religious beliefs too, so he's going to be judged. He's going to face some things that are going to be very difficult to overcome."
We've already gotten more than a glimpse at what Sam will face. At last year's Super Bowl, San Francisco cornerback Chris Culliver made a fool of himself when jokingly asked by comedian Artie Lange if he would ever pursue a gay man.
"Ain't got no gay people on the team," Culliver said. "They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff."
A few years ago, I broached the idea of having an openly gay teammate to several players in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse. One freely conceded he would be uncomfortable dressing or showering in front of someone he knew was gay, and I've long suspected he was not alone in that attitude. Anyone who has ever been in a sports locker room knows what a macho world that can be, where distasteful - even hurtful - words are thrown around with shocking frequency.
Just ask Jonathan Martin, the offensive lineman who walked away from the Miami Dolphins this past season, claiming he had been bullied and harassed daily by teammate Richie Incognito and others.
Eight NFL executives and coaches, interviewed by SI.com and given anonymity so they could give their true opinions, revealed the daunting challenges that Sam set himself up for by coming out ahead of the draft.
Before he spoke, the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year was projected as a mid- to late-round draft pick. Now, according to everyone interviewed by SI.com, his stock will certainly plummet.
"I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down," said a veteran NFL scout. "Do you want to be the team to, quote-unquote, break that barrier?"
A player personnel assistant added, "I don't think football is ready for it just yet. 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."
Imagine what Sam might face on the field, in a sport where it's not all that unusual for a player to exact his own version of justice with a low blow or a dirty block.
But there's some encouraging signs, as well.
Sam came out in August to his teammates and coaches at Missouri, and it sure didn't seem to have any negative impact on the Tigers. They went 12-2, won the SEC East Division title, and defeated Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. Sam, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound defensive end, led the conference in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19).
"Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he's taught a lot of people here firsthand that it doesn't matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we're all on the same team and we all support each other," coach Gary Pinkel said. "If Michael doesn't have the support of his teammates like he did this past year, I don't think there's any way he has the type of season he put together."
Let's hope there's another team, another group of players that feels the same way, that judges Sam by what he can do on a football field.
Nothing more. Nothing less.
n interviews with ESPN, (SEE VIDEO HERE | More Video Below ) The New York Times and Outsports, Sam said publicly for the first time that he was gay. He said he came out to his teammates and coaches at Missouri in August.
Sam will participate in the NFL combine later this month in Indianapolis and is projected to be a mid-round draft pick in May.
"Hopefully it will be the same like my locker room," he told ESPN. "It's a workplace. If you've ever been in a Division I or pro locker room, it's a business place. You want to act professional."
Sam received much public support Sunday night from people throughout the world of sports.
"I can't wait to cheer for whatever lucky team that drafts (at)MikeSamFootball. Personally I hope he goes to my favorite team. The (at)Colts" tweeted Jason Collins, the pro basketball player who said publicly last season that he is gay.
There also were words of caution.
Offensive lineman Frank Garcia, who played nine seasons (1995-2003) in the NFL with the Panthers, Rams and Cardinals, said Sam could face "huge challenges" in the league.
Garcia was teammates and good friends with defensive lineman Esera Tuaolo, who announced he was gay on HBO's Real Sports in 2002 - three years after he left the NFL.
Garcia said although he and Tuaolo regularly hung out as teammates in Carolina in 1999, Tuaolo never once let on that he was gay.
"I think a lot of guys in the NFL are going to say they will accept it, but there are a lot of guys who won't," said Garcia, now a sports radio show host with WFNZ-AM in Charlotte.
"The reality is Michael Sam is going to open himself up to a lot of criticism and a lot of challenges. Those are challenges most gay people have to go through, but when you are dealing with alpha males and some meatheads in an NFL locker room it's amplified. And there are some guys who have strong religious beliefs, too, so he's going to be judged. He's going to face some things that are going to be very difficult to overcome," Garcia says.
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam participated in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month after leading the Southeastern Conference in sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19). He was the SEC defensive player of the year.
There have been a few NFL players who have come out after their playing days, including Kwame Harris and Dave Kopay.
Collins, a 35-year-old backup center, came out after last season when he was a free agent and was not signed this season. MLS star and U.S. national team player Robbie Rogers also came out a year ago.
"His courage will inspire millions to live their truth," Rogers tweeted about Sam.
Division III Willamette kicker Conner Mertens, a redshirt freshman, said last month he was bisexual.
"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the NFL said in 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."
Sam's announcement comes at a time gay rights and sports have collided at the Olympics in Sochi. Russia's anti-gay propaganda law has received much attention, and criticism, because of the games.
"By rewriting the script for countless young athletes, Michael has demonstrated the leadership that, along with his impressive skills on the field, makes him a natural fit for the NFL," said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of GLAAD, a leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization. "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's sexual orientation, anti-discrimination and harassment policy states:
"Coaches, General Managers and others responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player's sexual orientation. This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest that the player's sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him.
"Examples: Do you like women or men? How well do you do with the ladies? Do you have a girlfriend?"
Carolina Panthers running back DeAngelo Williams tweeted: "I could care less about a man's sexual preference! i care about winning games and being respectful in the locker room!"
Williams' teammate, cornerback Drayton Florence, posted on his Twitter account: "No comment but it can be a distraction in the locker room. At least he's open with it much respect!"