When former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out publicly as a gay athlete Sunday evening, Cyd Zeigler, editor of outsports.com and someone who has waited for this moment for more than 15 years, couldn’t overstate its significance.
“This is the most significant coming out in the history of sports and it might be the most significant coming out ever in or outside sports,” Zeigler told Yahoo Sports. “Because of what football represents in our culture and what he potentially represents to undermine that.”
Sam is the first active major college football player to announce he is gay and could be the first openly gay player in the NFL.
Zeigler knew the announcement was coming and detailed as much in his piece “The Eagle has Landed,” which appeared on outsports.com shortly after Sam’s televised interview with ESPN began.
Publicist Howard Bragman sought Zeigler’s help in figuring out the right way for Sam to announce the news and which media outlets should get first crack at it. Zeigler also spent Saturday evening at Bragman’s house in Los Angeles grilling Sam with different questions that could come from the media. Zeigler said Sam enjoyed the challenge and even enjoyed the major responsibility he was about to assume. To all the people in the room on Saturday night, which included Bragman, Sam’s agents Joe Barkett and Cameron Weiss, Dave Kopay, a former NFL running back who came out in 1975, former Major Leaguer Billy Bean, who also had come out a decade ago, and former NFL players Chris Kluwe, Brendon Ayanbedajo and Wade Davis, who were there for moral support, Sam was a pioneer.
“I think he just doesn’t quite understand what’s going on,” Zeigler said of Sam. “He’s been out to his team, remember, all season long. They’ve been incredibly successful and he’s been embraced by them. So, I got the feeling he was like, ‘What’s the big deal? I’ve been through this once. Who cares? My teammates didn’t care at Missouri, they’re not going to care in the NFL. And let’s move on.’”
But the moving on part might be difficult. Since Sam’s announcement, several articles have popped up, many citing anonymous NFL and team officials saying that Sam’s draft status would be affected by his decision to go public with his sexual orientation. Sports Illustrated’s highly connected NFL reporter Peter King wrote on Twitter that one GM told him he didn’t think Sam would be drafted at all.
CBS dropped Sam in its draft rankings from No. 90 to No. 160 overall.
Prior to the announcement, Sam, who was named the 2013 SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year, was estimated to be anywhere from a third-round pick to a late-round pick. But almost every mock draft had him being selected somewhere.
Since the SEC started handing out Defensive Player of the Year awards, only one of those honorees has been picked outside of the top 33 picks. LSU’s Chad Lavalais was selected No. 142 in 2004.
A Sports Illustrated article by Pete Thamel cites an unnamed source as saying he didn’t think a team would want the media circus that comes with having a gay player. That notion made Zeigler laugh.
“There will be some extra media, there will be some extra questions, there will be a few extra cameras, but what NFL team is not prepare for media attention?” Zeigler said. “The first day of training camp it will be one day of extra questions and then everybody will be like, well, now what do we do? And the first game he plays, there will be a couple extra cameras, but then it will be, well, now what do we do? I guess we have to focus on the football."
Zeigler also said there would be some major backlash if Sam isn't drafted.
“If he isn’t drafted, Michael Sam probably has a lawsuit against the NFL for discrimination," Zeigler said. "The last eight – the last eight – SEC defensive players of the year were first round draft picks. To suddenly have one go undrafted is impossible. And if a bunch of stupid GM’s don’t want to draft him, that’s just to the benefit to the GM’s who realize what I realize and what every NFL player will come to realize - that it doesn’t matter.”
Zeigler also said the comments from the league appeared to be a bit of posturing. In his article on outsports,com, Zeigler notes that Sam’s agents were asked strange questions during the Senior Bowl about Sam’s personal life, including whether he had a girlfriend and whether he was regularly seen with girls. They were questions that weren’t directed to the agency’s other draft-eligible client.
ESPN also noted during its coverage of Sam’s announcement that many NFL scouts who had come to the Missouri campus were alerted to Sam’s sexual orientation. It was one of the worst-kept secrets in Columbia, Mo.
“A lot of these teams knew he was gay,” Zeigler said. “The only thing that’s changed is that the public knows. That’s the only thing that’s changed. And if an NFL team is afraid of that, what are we talking about?”
There’s little doubt Sam can play. He finished with an SEC-best 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. He was a defensive end at Missouri and though many consider him to be a potential linebacker in the NFL because of his 6-foot-2, 260-pound frame, he’s listed as a defensive lineman at the NFL combine later this month. Many think Sam's high-motor might be best suited for a 3-4 defense.
Sam wanted to make his announcement following the combine, but as rumors started to swirl during the Senior Bowl and intensified in the weeks after, Bragman and Zeigler weren’t sure the story was going to hold. A text message from a media member to Zeigler on Saturday night forced Sam to move his announcement from Monday to Sunday. It wasn’t ideal, but Sam still got to tell his story on his terms, which is all he wanted.
Zeigler said Sam wanted his orientation out there so teams knew exactly what they were getting. They could take the temperatures of their locker rooms and decide if he was going to be a good fit. There wouldn’t be any rumors or guessing games. Sam would sit in front of these GM’s and coaches and there wouldn’t be any surprises. NFL teams would know exactly what they were getting.
And Zeigler thinks that will be the end of it.
“Let me put it this way, for 15 years, Out Sports has done the coming out stories of probably 200 athletes in high school, college and the pros in various different sports, including football,” Zeigler said. “Every single one of them said the same exact thing: They were afraid of coming out, they heard homophobic things in the locker room before they did and when they came out, not only were they embraced fully by their team and the coaching staff, but the same people who had said homophobic things before they came out, went to them and apologized and embraced them. So, people are afraid of what they don’t know. It’s going to be just fine like it has in any other locker room for anybody to come out.”
Still, Zeigler understands Sam is making a big leap especially by making this announcement before he’s ever made a play for an NFL team.
But any radical change starts with the courage of one person. Sam isn’t the first gay player to play in college and he won’t be the first to play in the NFL. He will be the first to do it openly and proudly. He’s not afraid of the consequences or the backlash. He’s looking for acceptance for who he is as a football player and as a gay man and we’ll all learn in the coming months whether those two things can embody one person in the machismo of the NFL.
“The biggest deal for me is when all these idiots are proven wrong and he steps foot on the field and everything is fine,” Zeigler said. “This is going to answer, for good or for bad, every single question we have. If an athlete can come out of the closet and be drafted and then make a team and then play, what else is there to say?”
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