by Benjamin Collinger
When Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the 2014 NFL draft, he became the first openly gay athlete to play a major American sport. His accomplishments in college football, including the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year award, are second in magnitude to his impact on the social aspects of professional football and sports at large. Sam’s story is one of incredible sorrow and struggle. Yet the death of siblings, familial instability, and experiences of bullying have catalyzed his advocacy for others. Benjamin Collinger spoke briefly with Sam about masculinity in the NFL, his experience of being drafted, and recommendations Sam has for coaches of young athletes.
Could you describe how you have seen football’s culture change over time?
My time in the NFL was pretty short so I can’t give you much detail about that. But as far as the locker room in Missouri, my teammates knew for a long time about my sexual orientation. From the day I came out, they welcomed me with open arms. They actually even respected me more by being not only a guy who embraced myself, but also respecting me to find my own truth. They were really proud of me. As far as the NFL, when I came there it was pretty much no big deal. The media blew it up out of proportion, because there are actually gay NFL players, they’re just not out. I’ve never seen or experienced homophobia [in the NFL], they just treated me like a rookie.
Based on your experiences in different levels of football, what would you like to see change in sports culture generally?
I would like to see a lot more teams breaking down stereotypes. A lot of people think that just because you’re gay, that you’re for some reason weak or feminine or something. No. I was the SEC defensive player of the year and an All-American and here I’m gay. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is if you’re good and can play the sport, you deserve to play.
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Football is considered the most stereotypically masculine sport. How do you think that people should rethink masculinity as it relates to sports?
I am who I am. Some people might say, well you’re masculine and gay. Which is fine, what you see is what you get. I’m not acting or trying to be somebody else. People need to get out of that mindset of what they think masculinity is supposed to be, and I’m just who I am. People need to start accepting people for who they are and not classifying based on others.
There was a lot of controversy around the St. Louis Rams drafting you, and reports said that the NFL may have made a deal with the team to draft you. Could you tell me your thoughts about that situation?
Whatever happened with that situation, I’ve made peace with it. I’ve moved on. If there were any back room deals about me getting drafted, it’s over. Hopefully it wasn’t, but if it was, I’ve made my peace and have moved on to bigger and better things in life.
Is there any advice that you would give to coaches of young athletes?
If you really want to be a good coach, I think Coach [Gary] Pinkel is one of the greatest coaches I’ve been under. He was a player’s coach and truly and genuinely cared about his players. My advice is to get to know your players, be accepting to everyone and be a player’s coach. If you want to follow someone, look at coach Pinkel and what he’s done not only for me, but for the University of Missouri.
Is there anything that you believe is true that very few people believe is true?
I do believe that everything happens for a reason. A lot of people don’t believe that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.