By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - National Football League hopeful Michael Sam on Monday drew public support from athletes, fans and politicians after he disclosed he is gay and became potentially the league's first openly homosexual player.
The NFL and the University of Missouri, where Sam starred as a defensive lineman, rallied around him. Even first lady Michelle Obama weighed in, calling him an "inspiration" for his courage on and off the field.
Many fans of Missouri football who have watched Sam on the field also showed support and said the news was a non-issue.
"It didn't affect his play last year and he's the same person as he was before this was widely known," said Taylor Foitle, a senior at the university and ardent fan of the Tigers.
Sam is expected to be selected in the upcoming NFL draft, where stand-out college players can earn million-dollar salaries. If picked, he would become the first openly gay player to compete in any of North America's four major professional sports leagues - football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
Some commentators were less enthusiastic following Sunday's announcement, including former NFL head coach Herm Edwards, who said on ESPN that Sam may bring "baggage" to a locker room because of the media scrutiny placed on him and his team.
And eight NFL executives and coaches interviewed by Sports Illustrated on the condition of anonymity said Sam's coming out could hurt his standing in the draft.
On Yahoo message boards, some people criticized Sam for going public with his sexual orientation, with one anonymous commentator accusing him of trying to gain publicity for "deviant behavior," and another arguing that Sam should not be allowed in the same locker room as male teammates.
Sam decided to make the announcement after it became apparent about two weeks ago that NFL scouts were questioning his sexual orientation, said Los Angeles publicist Howard Bragman, whom Sam hired to help him handle the disclosure.
"This was getting out there, whether we announced it or not. Pro scouts knew it," Bragman told Reuters. "He's not looking at history. He is just looking to tell his story and play football."
Bragman said Sam was trying to stay out of the spotlight at a practice camp preparing for the draft, scheduled for May 8-10 at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Despite the support, he understands the news may hurt his draft opportunities.
"I long for the day when this isn't a story. We have gays in Congress, gays in the military. But sports is still this Holy Grail," said Bragman. "People shoot people in the NFL, they do drugs, they beat their wives, they do dog fighting, and they call this a distraction."
OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT
A day before making the announcement, Sam talked with Wade Davis, a former NFL player who is now executive director for the You Can Play Project, an advocacy group working for equality for lesbian, gay and transgender athletes.
"There will be a smattering of guys who have a problem with it, but the majority of guys will just care about if he can help them win," Davis said. "I'm not saying it's going to be cotton candy for Michael. He'll face the same kind of hazing and joking that all rookies get."
In a press conference Monday at the University of Missouri, head football coach Gary Pinkel said that as far as he knew Sam had not experienced any problems with his teammates in the locker room, despite having come out to the team months ago.
Pinkel said he realized the issue could impact Sam's draft pick position, but he hoped not.
"This is uncharted territory," he said.
Sam, a 6-foot, 2-inch (188-cm), 260-pound (118-kg) pass rusher who graduated in December, was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) after leading the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss.
The NFL issued a statement applauding Sam's "honesty and courage and university spokesman Chad Moller said the attitude on and off campus toward Sam has been "overwhelmingly positive."
"I'm not naive to think there hasn't been negative comments out there in the social media world, but it's really been a proud moment" for the school, said Moller.
Robert Boland, a professor of sports management and sports law at New York University, said the issue could cause some teams to pass Sam over in the draft, but that Sam was talented enough to hold appeal to others.
"Given that he was first team All-American, and the SEC defensive player of the year ... there will probably be some team that says, 'Wow maybe if some people pass on him, I can get a really undervalued player,'" he said.
Seventeen states and the federal government have moved toward expanding gay rights, including same-sex marriage, but U.S. sports have been seen as lagging in its acceptance of gay and lesbian athletes.
In April, veteran basketball player Jason Collins revealed he was gay after the regular season and was not signed for the 2013-2014 season. Collins was the first openly gay athlete in any of North America's four major professional sports leagues, though he never competed as an openly gay player.
"I can't wait to cheer for whatever lucky team that drafts (him)," tweeted Collins, calling Sam a great young man.
(Additional reporting by Joan Koka in Columbia, Missouri, and Edith Honan and Marina Lopes in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)