Full support for Sam

Pinkel believes respect between Sam, team helped Tigers succeed

In this Jan. 3 photo, Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam goes through warmups before the Cotton Bowl wearing an “MU Pride” bracelet on his right wrist made by Triangle Coalition, a student organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

In this Jan. 3 photo, Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam goes through warmups before the Cotton Bowl wearing an “MU Pride” bracelet on his right wrist made by Triangle Coalition, a student organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — The world now knows that Michael Sam is gay.

The Missouri defensive end, a consensus first-team All-American and co-Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, shared his story with the public Sunday night via ESPN, the New York Times and outsports.com. Sam came out to his teammates before the 2013-14 season, a remarkable year for the Tigers capped with a No. 5 overall ranking and Cotton Bowl victory.

The reaction from his Missouri teammates allowed for that to happen.

“I think overall it was remarkably positive,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said Monday in front of a massive throng of media members on the fifth floor at Memorial Stadium. ”I thought they embraced him. I’m also not naive enough to think that you have 127 players — and everybody has ideas and thoughts and opinions on all kinds of social issues — I think some of the players might not agree, but that’s OK. … It’s about being respectful to people. If you’re part of our family, part of our football program, part of our team, we’re going to be respectful of the differences amongst us and embrace and support each other. That’s what we do here at Mizzou.”

There were no conversations between players and coaches about keeping Sam’s story a secret. A mutual respect allowed Sam to tell his story on his own terms, when he was ready.

“They protect each other,” Pinkel said. “It’s pretty amazing how close our team is.”

Sam didn’t divulge his secret to the public prior to the season out of fear it would distract the team.

“It was ultimately his decision,” Pinkel said. “He said, ‘Coach, I don’t want a distraction here. I want to focus on winning football games and I want the team to have their best year and for me to have my best year.’ … We honored that.”

Pinkel and Sam had a brief discussion following the regular season, with the All-American deciding to wait until after the Jan. 3 Cotton Bowl.

“I had no idea when it was going to happen,” Pinkel said. “… He wanted to tell his story. I think it’s a great statement about Michael Sam.

“He said last night on ESPN, ‘I’m a college graduate, I’m African-American, I’m gay.’ It was awesome. It was very important to me to see that.”

Sam racked up 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss during a dominant senior campaign. His biggest accomplishment might have come Sunday night, as he became first openly gay NFL draft prospect in history.

“I’m very proud of Michael Sam, I’m very proud of our football team and how we’ve dealt with this,” Pinkel said. “It just says so much for our family and our team and the kind of kids we have and how much they care about each other. We talk in our program all the time about respecting the cultural differences of other people, that’s one of our core values. This certainly applies to this. We are going to be respectful and caring and kind to every one of our teammates, regardless of what your ideas and your thoughts are. That’s very, very important to us. I’m very proud of that.

“When we talked last August, I told him, ‘This is going to be,’ and I use the word ‘mammoth’ a lot, I don’t have a word for how big this is going to be. I think he’ll be fine. It will just be interesting to see things happen and where they go.”

The talk about Sam’s draft stock — and he’s projected to be a mid-round pick — can wait.

“The story’s about Michael,” Missouri director of athletics Mike Alden said. “How can you not be proud of him as a young man? What a great kid and (he) shows great courage and compassion. To be able to tell his story on his own terms, I think that’s great.”

III

THE OUTPOURING OF support for Sam isn’t unique to those associated with the football program.

The Missouri men’s basketball team made its thoughts known during a weekly media session Monday prior to the press conference at Faurot Field.

“I’ve met Michael and I’m very proud of him,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. “I’m proud of our university. What it says is that we have tremendous leadership within our football program. What Gary has done with that locker room … it says a lot about him. The way our university has handled it, I’m very proud to be a part of this university.

“I think Gary laid a footprint on how to handle it. I think that says the courage that young man has is phenomenal. To do what he’s done, I think you can only just applaud him. Applaud our football program and our leadership.”

As far as how an openly gay player would be treated in the men’s basketball locker room?

“I think we’d embrace him just like the football team did,” sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg said. “I don’t think you view somebody based on sexual orientation. I think you view them as your teammate. You play together and you’re a brotherhood. You go to war together. You’re there to play football, you’re there to play basketball, I don’t think that anything else should matter and I don’t think it will.”

Added junior guard Jabari Brown: “I don’t think people would treat him differently. Basketball is what we are all here for.”

III

THE SUPPORT FOR Sam extended to the political world as well.

A Missouri senator is calling on the Legislature to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the Associated Press.

State Sen. Scott Sifton, a St. Louis Democrat, said Monday lawmakers should use Sam’s announcement as a rallying cry to pass anti-discrimination legislation.

Missouri law now bars discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex and disability. This year’s bill would add sexual orientation to that list.

Gov. Jay Nixon has also asked lawmakers to pass the bill, but his call received a tepid response from the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The White House is also applauding Sam’s decision, with President Barack Obama’s spokesman, first lady Michelle Obama and vice president Joe Biden all portraying him as a courageous and inspirational athlete.

Biden and the first lady took to Twitter on Monday to comment on Sam’s story. Mrs. Obama said she “couldn’t be prouder” of Sam’s courage, both on and off the field.

The tweet was signed “-mo,” which is how the White House marks messages personally sent by the first lady.

“Your courage is an inspiration to all of us,” Biden said. The message was signed “-VP,” which designates the vice president personally sent it.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president “shares the sentiments expressed by the first lady and the vice president and so many others in marveling at his courage and congratulating him on the decisions he’s made, on the support he’s had from his team and wishing him well in the future, including in professional football.”

Carney said Sam’s announcement should not affect his standing on the NFL draft and his abilities should be measured by his performance.

“And in this case, his performance has been exceptional,” Carney said.

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