University footballer set to be first openly gay NFL player

Michael Sam, formerly with the University of Missouri, is expected to be drafted in May


One of the most promising American footballers on the verge of turning pro, Michael Sam, has revealed he is gay, setting him on course to be the National Football League's first openly gay player.

Sam, a 24-year-old defensive player formerly with the University of Missouri, completed his college football career in December and is expected to be drafted into the NFL in May.

Six months after revealing his sexuality to his Missouri team-mates, the player named the top defensive player in the Southeastern Conference, considered the best league in US college football, announced he was gay in interviews with the American sports channel ESPN and the New York Times.

Sam told ESPN: “I understand how big this is. It’s a big deal. No one has done this before. And it’s kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be – I want to be a football player in the NFL.”

READ MORE

The NFL said in response that it admired Sam’s “honesty and courage” and said it looked forward to “welcoming and supporting” him in 2014.

US First Lady Michelle Obama described Sam as “an inspiration to all of us” in a message on social media website Twitter

Sam’s announcement came as the US government extended recognition of same-sex marriages to the 34 states where such unions are still illegal in matters including bankruptcies, prison visits, and benefits for spouses of police officers and firefighters killed on duty.

US attorney general Eric Holder, at the justice department, issued a memo yesterday that recognises same-sex marriages “to the greatest extent possible under the law.”

Revealing the extension of federal rights for gay couples at a human rights campaign event in New York on Saturday, Mr Holder compared the cause of gay rights to the 1960s civil rights movement and the then attorney general Robert F Kennedy’s support for equality.

Gay advocates praised Sam as the latest high-profile athlete to reveal he was gay.

“With acceptance of LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] people across our coasts – in our schools, churches and workplaces – it’s clear America is ready for an openly gay football star,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of gay rights group GLAAD.

Sam’s decision to reveal his sexuality is unique for a future NFL player. Other professional athletes who have revealed themselves to be gay have done so at the end of their careers. NFL player Dave Kopay in the 1970s and basketball player John Amaechi in 2007 announced they were gay on retirement.

Jason Collins, a 12-year NBA veteran, revealed he was gay at the end of last season, when he became a free agent. He has not been signed since then.

Former US international soccer player Robbie Rogers, a former English league player, came out on retirement, but returned to the sport at Los Angeles Galaxy after he received a supportive response.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent