The first out professional football player comes home to Texas
Joining the Dallas Cowboys practice squad is a sort of homecoming for Michael Sam, the first out gay football player to be drafted in the National Football League. Growing up in the Texas Gulf Coast town of Hitchcock, his favorite team was America’s Team.
Sam’s agent told Dallas Voice Sam was not doing one-on-one interviews because he wants to “focus on football.” But the 24 year-old’s legacy as a ground-breaking pioneer in the sport is well documented through print, digital and social media.
Not only has his short but successful football career been well documented, but so too have the intricacies of his personal life. By piecing together the selected interviews, biographies, press statements and photographs from the past year, it’s clear that Sam has had one wild past year.
The University of Missouri player burst onto every sports enthusiast’s radar in 2013, when he was the Southeastern Conference’s Player of the Year. The consensus among sports analysts then was that he’d be a top NFL draft in the early rounds.
But in February, Sam came out as a gay man. Though still considered a top pick, some privately wondered whether the NFL was ready for an out gay player. They thought it could impact his chances and in some cases, it was posited a gay player would turn away fans or create a distraction in the locker room.
Other select interviews also detailed a difficult childhood. ESPN.com interviewed his brother, Josh, who is currently in the Galveston County jail.
“I’m proud of him for not becoming like me. I still love him, whatever his lifestyle is,” Josh Sam said. “He’s still my brother and I love him.”
The St. Louis Rams picked Sam in the seventh and final round of the NFL’s 2014 draft. With all cameras on him, tears running down his face, Sam kissed his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, claiming another slice of sports history.
As the New York Times reported after the pick, “Sam’s draft status was seen as a barometer of whether the NFL was ready to accept an openly gay player.”
That kind of legacy speaks to the impact the Cowboys’ recent recruit has on the sport of football and on the LGBT community. But it also humanizes what his brother and other media sources describe as a young man with a tough upbringing who found refuge with neighbors and on the football field.
Sam was cut in the final round of trials with the Rams as part of the process of meeting the league’s mandated limit of 53 players.
To quell any cries of homophobia, Rams Coach Jeff Fisher made it clear at a press conference that the decision was only related to the team’s needs. “There will be no challenge, no challenges whatsoever,” for Sam.
“I will tell you this: I was pulling for Mike,” he said. “I really was, and I don’t say that very often. Mike came in here and did everything we asked him to do.”
The Dallas Cowboys expressed their interest in Sam, now a free agent. And after a Sept. 3 physical, he signed with the Cowboys’ practice squad.
“If anybody wants Sam to succeed, the Cowboys practice squad is the place,” said Dave Zirin, the sports editor at The Nation magazine. Sam’s main weakness is as an “in-betweener,’ a player without a position.”
Impact in Dallas
Out athletes playing professional sports are not new. One-time Fort Worth resident and out lesbian Martina Navratilova is a tennis champion. Olympic champion swimmer Greg Louganis went on to write a bestselling memoir and married his partner.
But while many out athletes have had successful careers, only one until now has been part of one of the big four leagues, and none went without facing the stigma found in professional athletics.
Jason Collins, a professional basketball player with the Brooklyn Nets, came out in Sports Illustrated in 2013. He paved a path for future “big four” athletes, said Rob King of Dallas.
As an avid sports enthusiast and an out gay man, King just cares about what goes on the court. “It’s what you do on the court that counts,” he said. And he believes Sam should be held to the same standards as straight players.
Rafael McDonnell, advocacy and communications manager at Dallas’ Resource Center, said this is still uncharted territory. Sam, he said, is uniquely positioned to make history: He’s not just a gay football player, but also the first out gay football player joining an iconic brand.
“When anyone in the world talks about American football, they talk about the Dallas Cowboys,” McDonnell said. “They’re wrapped up in the identity of North Texas.”
The North Texas identity, like many other areas of the nation, is slowly evolving on LGBT rights. But, as Zirin said, “Wherever [Sam] wound up, it shouldn’t have been a city with abject homophobia. Dallas certainly fits the bill of a pro-LGBT community.”
Despite the perception of the NFL as a macho fraternity house, assumed homophobia shouldn’t change the overall product, according to Eric Yorkston, an associate professor of marketing at Texas Christian University.
“Sam’s orientation doesn’t essentially change the identity of the overall product. Only people who are very anti-gay and come in with preconceptions will see the team differently,” Yorkston said. “Fans will be happy as long as the team performs well.”
But to Paula Reeves of Fort Worth, that sentiment isn’t entirely accurate. While it makes her “proud to be part of the Metroplex, there are many times when it feels like Texas doesn’t want me here because I’m gay.”
Her girlfriend, Carlie Threlkeld, also of Fort Worth, believes Sam will change the perception not just for LGBT people but for others, too. An out and skilled football player “will show people that this community is made up of strong people that are unafraid, but also that we are human beings.”
Whenever King, his partner and two other gay friends go to a game, they can’t help but get excited when celebrating their favorite team’s win. Just like everyone else, they hug one another; hold up their prideful “No. 1” foam finger.
But unlike others, who may show signs of affection, “We scale it down to our level of comfort.” They don’t want to offend audience members by kissing, the way Sam kissed Cammisano after he signed with the Rams.
“Hopefully in the future it won’t have to be like that,” King said.
Hopefully, Michael Sam is helping pave the way to that future.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 12, 2014.