Michael Sam and the Rise of the Gay Athlete

Mizzou player Michael Sam at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.
Mizzou player Michael Sam at the NFL combine in Indianapolis. Brian Spurlock/USA Today Sports

Michael Sam and the Rise of the Gay Athlete

On February 8, sports publicist Howard Bragman threw a party at his house in Los Angeles, a private affair with a selective guest list of sports media, agents and retired athletes, all of whom shared a common mission: to help a gay pro athlete come out publicly.

Among those in attendance were Chris Kluwe, the recently retired Vikings punter and outspoken gay-marriage advocate; former Packers defenseman David Kopay, who came out as gay after retiring in the '70s; Billy Bean, a gay former MLB outfielder; former Ravens linebacker and same-sex marriage proponent Brendon Ayanbadejo; retired NFL cornerback Wade Davis, who also came out after retirement; and Cyd Zeigler, cofounder of Outsports, a website that covers LGBT issues in sports.

The guest of honor was a virtually unknown defenseman from the University of Missouri named Michael Sam.

Dressed casually in jeans and a blue plaid shirt, Sam sipped on whiskey and showed the others pictures of his boyfriend. He appeared collected and in good spirits, despite the fact that tomorrow would be perhaps the most important day of his life.

"Michael's not the kind of guy who gets nervous," says Bragman.

They sat around Bragman's dining-room table eating Chinese food and Southern-style peach cobbler, which Zeigler had baked at Sam's request. Kopay punched Sam in the arm over and over, maybe a little harder than the 71-year-old realized, trying to psych him up for the hard road tomorrow would bring.

"You've gotta play," he recalls telling Sam. "Not only for yourself, but for other people."

Bragman silenced the room to make a toast. He first raised his glass to Kopay, his long-time friend, whom he called a pioneer for gay rights in the NFL. He then turned to Sam, who would be picking up what Kopay began almost 40 years ago. Kopay teared up.

After dinner, Sam, Zeigler and a couple of others continued the festivities at a karaoke bar, where Sam sang "My Girl" by the Temptations with Davis, Ayanbadejo and Zeigler on backup vocals, and then to the Abbey, a gay bar in West Hollywood.

The next day, the New York Times, ESPN and Outsports would run in-depth stories outing Sam as gay, and the story would ripple across the national news media. But on this February night in Los Angeles, Sam was still just another face in the crowd of a karaoke bar.

"It was just interesting," recalls Zeigler, "being with somebody who 24 hours later would be the biggest news story in the country, and no one — I mean no one — had any idea who he was."

The timing of Sam's announcement was not arbitrary. He had just finished his senior season playing for the Mizzou Tigers, where he was named 2013's SEC Defensive Player of the Year. In two weeks he would enter the NFL combine, a precursor to the draft where coaches and scouts observe prospects performing a series of mental and physical challenges.

"It was important for us that we come out before the draft," says Bragman. "We wanted teams to know what they were getting with Michael."

If, as is expected, an NFL team drafts Sam this week, he will be the first out athlete to ever play in the league. For other gay players who spent their careers in the closet, Sam's announcement marks a moment of hope and evidence that even in the hyper-machismo world of professional sports, attitudes toward gay people have evolved.

2014 is shaping up to be a historic year for gay rights in sports. Shortly after Sam's announcement, the Brooklyn Nets signed veteran NBA center Jason Collins, who came out in a Sports Illustrated cover story a year prior. Collins is now the first openly gay man to play in any of the four major U.S. sports leagues — NBA, NHL, NFL and MLB — earning him a spot on TIME's "100 Most Influential People" list. Just last month, University of Massachusetts sophomore Derrick Gordon became the first Division 1 basketball player to come out publicly.

"I think the takeaway is: Change has come pretty quickly," says Dan Woog, author of Jocks: True Stories of America's Gay Male Athletes. "And it's continuing. There's no turning back."

Outside of the four major U.S. leagues, many more athletes have been coming out in the past two years. Among the most notable are WNBA star Brittney Griner, British soccer player Robbie Rogers and boxer Orlando Cruz.

"We're just waiting for the next domino to fall," says Dave Pallone, a gay former baseball umpire and author of Behind the Mask: My Double Life in Baseball. "I'm hoping it's going to be baseball. I'm really hoping."

But even with social change, there are still questions as to what lies ahead for these pioneering athletes in a culture where homophobia is far from extinct. Earlier this year, the Minnesota Vikings hired a team of investigators to examine Kluwe's claims that a special-teams coach regularly spewed homophobic speech on the field. Among Kluwe's allegations is that the coach once said in a special-teams meeting: "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island and nuke it until it glows."

Kluwe and his lawyer believe their case against the Vikings could finally address the bullying culture in sports locker rooms — and make it easier for future gay players to come out.

"It's going to have to change, because there are going to be lawsuits," says Clayton Halunen, Kluwe's lawyer. "They're not going to be able to live in this ivory tower anymore like they've been able to, untouchable because they're so powerful."

Sam very well may become the first player to grace the NFL gridiron out of the closet, but he's not the first gay man to play. In all statistical likelihood, there have been gay football players as long as there's been football.

Kopay was the first NFL player to ever come out after retirement, and it cost him dearly. Over the course of nine years, Kopay played for six teams beginning in 1964. He knew very well that he wasn't the only gay player in the NFL at the time; he had a brief sexual relationship with a teammate, Jerry Smith, who died of AIDS before ever coming out himself. But Kopay recognized that revealing his sexuality would mean the unceremonious end of his career, so he kept it a secret from nearly everyone in his life.

"For me to survive the dark days that existed then — you have no idea," says Kopay. "There was days when I was afraid of the dark. There was days when I was questioning everything. It was bleak."

He came out in 1975, two years after retirement, after reading an article about an anonymous gay NFL player he recognized as his Smith. At the time, Kopay was a prospect for several coaching positions, but each team passed him over, which he believes — at least in part — was punishment for coming out. Instead of coaching, he spent most of his post-NFL days helping run a family floor-covering store.

"I would love to have coached, and I think I would have been a damn good coach," he says.

Only five more NFL players have come out of the closet after retirement. Still, society's attitude toward gays has changed dramatically since Kopay's day, most noticeably in the past few years. Seventeen states have now legalized gay marriage, and even the president has announced his public support for the repeal of DOMA. The military has ended its Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Many states have passed anti-discrimination laws that protect LGBT employees in the workplace.

Even straight athletes are speaking out for gay rights. Kluwe, who has two daughters with his wife, Isabel, first launched himself into celebrity status as a relentless defender of gay rights in 2012 in a letter to the sports gossip site Deadspin. In it, Kluwe rhetorically eviscerated a Maryland legislator for trying to silence Ravens' Brendon Ayanbadejo's advocacy for same-sex marriage. "If gay marriage becomes legal, are you worried that all of a sudden you'll start thinking about penis?" Kluwe implored the legislator in the letter, which went viral and racked up millions of Web hits. "'Oh shit. Gay marriage just passed. Gotta get me some of that hot dong action!'"

Kluwe campaigned aggressively against a doomed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in Minnesota, and he has continued to lobby for same-sex rights on Twitter and by speaking at events. He led the Minneapolis Pride parade in 2013, and last summer he and Ayanbadejo filed a brief supporting same-sex marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court's Hollingsworth v. Perry case over the implementation of California's Prop 8 that recognized marriage as strictly a union of a man and a woman.

"I think what Chris Kluwe did was absolutely fabulous," says Kopay. "He was more effective than a gay person would be. I've thanked him many times for that."

Today, even if athletes do object to homosexuality, it's far less acceptable to voice these opinions publicly. When a player's homophobic rhetoric does go public, it's more often met with protest from fans than in the past.

"We've seen athletes on a professional level sort of grow up a little bit, I think, when it comes to realizing they can't have anti-gay rhetoric be part of their public speech," says Brian Healey, spokesman for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit that battles homophobia in sports. "It's not gonna fly anymore."

Two weeks after coming out publicly, Michael Sam addressed a throng of reporters at the NFL combine pressroom, already half grinning as he walked up to the podium.

"How you guys doing today?" he asked, laughing. "My name's Michael Sam, and I play football for the University of Missouri. As you may know, Missouri's the 'Show-Me State.' And you'd think I've shown you guys enough these past couple weeks, but I'm learning with the media you guys still want more. So ask your questions."

"Would you be hesitant about going into the Miami Dolphins locker room?" reporters asked, alluding to the bullying scandal that rocked that locker room. "Do you think you'll inspire other gay players to come out?" "Do you feel like a trailblazer?"

"I feel like I'm Michael Sam."

As long as there has been talk of gay athletes coming out, there have been questions as to how the revelation would go over with fans, teammates and coaches, and whether their personal lives would be a distraction to the sport.

In the case of Sam, the announcement came as no surprise to his teammates; Sam came out to them in the locker room months before they read about it in the New York Times. In fact, it seems like just about everyone at Mizzou, including the local press, knew Sam was gay long before it made national headlines.

"I don't think anyone was going to ask him about it, because there really wasn't a point," says Jack Witthaus, assistant sports editor for The Maneater, Mizzou's student-run newspaper.

After Sam did come out nationally, the campus community mobilized to support him. When the Westboro Baptist Church came to Mizzou to protest Sam in February, hundreds of people showed up to counter-protest, including some of Sam's teammates.

"The students, I think, overwhelmingly supported him," says Witthaus. "I didn't hear a single negative thing about Michael Sam."

Cyd Zeigler of Outsports believes the mainstream sports media has over sensationalized the belief that a gay player would be a distraction from the sport. As evidence, he points to Jason Collins. Though Collins' story made for international headlines, the media circus died down significantly after only a few days of the Nets signing him. Soon reporters at post-game press conferences were more interested in asking Collins about that evening's basketball game than they were in having him rehash his role in the history of the NBA.

"For years, the media has created a bunch of boogeymen for out gay athletes," says Zeigler. "At times, it's been the players are going to reject that person. And after all the interviews we at Outsports have done with athletes, that's just not the case."

That's not to say homophobia has disappeared entirely or that if Sam does make the NFL he's going to be accepted by everyone in the locker room. There is still plenty of evidence to the contrary, such as the comments from San Francisco 49er cornerback Chris Culliver leading up to the 2013 Super Bowl: "Ain't got no gay people on the team. They gotta get up outta here if they do. Can't be with that sweet stuff."

While many came out to support Jason Collins after his announcement — including Bill Clinton, Michelle Obama and Kobe Bryant — Collins told the New York Daily News that at least one "knucklehead" taunted him in the locker room for his sexuality.

Sam has already received criticism, most notably from anonymous NFL executives, who told Sports Illustrated that the NFL is still too much of a "man-to-man's game" for a gay player and that someone like Sam would "chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room."

"I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player," Sam told reporters at the combine in February, "instead of Michael Sam the gay football player."

Sitting on a park bench in the affluent ocean town of Huntington Beach, just a few miles from where he grew up, Chris Kluwe appears in his element on this sunny March afternoon — probably more so than he ever could in wintry Minnesota. His long hair is pulled into a ponytail, and, as is Kluwe's custom, he's dressed casually in basketball shorts and flip-flops. His shirt reads "Nice Vibe," which is an apt description of the punter's demeanor. A landscape of gated communities and Southern California-style mansions surrounds him for miles.

By his own admission, the 32-year-old is finished with professional football. Asked if he has plans for another career, he's characteristically nonchalant. "Not really," he says. "Just kind of hanging out. I think I'll continue writing because I enjoy doing it. And see where life takes me."

Exactly what happened between Kluwe and the Vikings may never be entirely known. In interviews with Riverfront Times and in an open letter to Deadspin, Kluwe says he first began feeling the tension mounting between himself and the Vikings in fall 2012, when head coach Leslie Frazier called Kluwe into his office and asked him to stop speaking out against Minnesota's anti-gay-marriage amendment. Frazier didn't take issue particularly with what he was saying, says Kluwe, just that he was making headlines talking about a subject other than football. Despite the warning from his boss, Kluwe decided to continue his campaign for gay rights.

"I figured it would blow over after the season was over," he says.

Around this time, Kluwe alleges, special-teams coach Mike Priefer started making anti-gay comments during practice. At first, Kluwe wasn't sure if Priefer was being hateful or just making distasteful jokes. After the comment about going nuclear on an island of gays, Kluwe decided it was the former.

He says he didn't tell any of his superiors about the remarks at the time because he didn't believe he could trust Frazier.

In spring 2013, the Vikings drafted UCLA punter Jeff Locke in the fifth round, and Kluwe knew his time in Minnesota was over. The Vikings dropped Kluwe from the team before the upcoming season, issuing a statement thanking Kluwe for his years with the Vikings. But many of Kluwe's fans, including Minnesota governor Mark Dayton, questioned whether his activism may have contributed to his dismissal. At the time, Kluwe said he didn't know if this played into the Vikings decision to cut him. "I'm not in those meetings, so I don't know what's said in there."

The Oakland Raiders signed Kluwe shortly afterward, but the team cut him before he played a single game.

Four months later, in January 2014, after Priefer was rumored as a potential successor to Frazier, Kluwe published his allegations to Deadspin, calling Priefer a homophobe and Frazier and team general manager Rick Spielman cowards. Though he couldn't say for certain, he said he believes that his activism was the reason he was fired.

Priefer quickly offered a vehement denial of the allegations. "I want to be clear that I do not tolerate discrimination of any type and am respectful of all individuals," he wrote. "I personally have gay family members who I love and support just as I do any family member."

The Vikings also denied Kluwe's claim that they dismissed him because of his activism, but the team still hired a team of investigators to look into the allegations. Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson and Chris Madel, a one-time prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, are leading the probe. Madel in particular has a reputation for his thorough investigative work in athletics cases; he conducted the Fiesta Bowl investigation into political kickbacks in Arizona in 2011, finding that bowl employees had made $46,539 in illegal campaign contributions.

"They have a pretty good track record with the Fiesta Bowl," says Kluwe. "I think that they're invested in actually getting to the truth, to what actually happened, and I think the Vikings are, too. So I'm hopeful that things will turn out the right way. And if they don't, then we'll go from there."

After deciding to go public with his allegations against Priefer, Kluwe hired Clayton Halunen, an employment-law attorney based out of Minneapolis. Halunen believes their case could be seminal in creating a precedent to deter workplace harassment in pro sports.

"I think it's time, and I think people are really open to this idea of changing this machismo that's always been part of professional sports," says Halunen. "I think those days might be over."

Based on talks with investigators so far, Halunen and Kluwe both say they're optimistic that investigators will side with them. But if they do lose this round, they plan to fight the next with civil action.

"At the end of the day, if they do come back and say this didn't happen, then it's a cover-up," says Halunen. "We will sue them, and we will hold them accountable."

Even in the midst of his battle with the Vikings, Kluwe expresses hope for the future of the issue so dear to his heart. The mere fact that the team hired outside investigators, he says, is evidence of the rapid cultural evolution.

"I think ten years ago, no one would even be talking about this," he says. "It would just be swept under the rug and business as usual."

Kluwe acknowledges that if the Vikings do side with Priefer, it could be a setback for the gay-rights agenda he's been pushing for years now. But one way or another, he says, it won't be the end.

"That's a fight I'm willing to wage," he says. "That's not something that I'm just going to be like, 'Oh, well, they found no wrongdoing. I guess we just go on with our lives.' That's not the kind of person I am."

He laughs. "If we're in this, we're in it for the long haul."

Heading into the draft this weekend, Michael Sam's sexual orientation isn't the only factor that could potentially hurt his draft stock. At six-foot-two and 260 pounds, he's considered small for an NFL defenseman. And though he performed well at Pro Day, he had a bad showing at the combine. By most accounts, he's not a top draft pick.

But Sam still has a good shot at being drafted in the later rounds this weekend, says Russell Lande, a former NFL scout who watched Sam perform at Pro Day. "I'd be surprised if he's not. He's not a lead prospect, but he's a really productive player."

The questions most scouts will be asking about Sam will likely have nothing to do with him being gay, predicts Lande. They will be more interested in Sam's character, how he'll respond to the demands of his coaches and teammates, and his ability to play through the pain that comes with being a professional football player.

"I don't think his sexuality is even going to come up for most teams," says Lande. "They'll all know it because he came out, but I think they're going to say, 'It is what it is.'"

Now that athletes like Sam and Collins have come out, many are left to wonder what will happen next. Dan Woog, whose research has chronicled the history of gays in professional sports, believes it's only a matter of time before more athletes begin to follow their lead. The ultimate goal, he says, is for an out athlete to be so commonplace that it's no longer news.

"Everybody remembers Jackie Robinson, the first black baseball player," says Woog. "A decent number of people remember Larry Doby, the second black baseball player. But nobody remembers the third."

There could be a waiting period to see how Collins and others are treated, says Kluwe. If they appear to get a fair shot, he believes it will inspire other athletes to follow.

Kluwe acknowledges that some teams might decline to draft Sam because he has come out as gay, but he's optimistic a team will sign him. Even then, Kluwe believes, plenty more work remains to rid homophobia completely from major league sports.

"It's not like all of the sudden a player comes out and everything is cured," Kluwe says. "We have to keep fighting."

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