Missouri’s Sam is breaking barriers

In this Sept. 8, 2012, file photo, Missouri’s Michael Sam runs onto the field along with his teammates before the start of a game against Georgia in Columbia. Sam hopes his ability is all that matters, not his sexual orientation.

In this Sept. 8, 2012, file photo, Missouri’s Michael Sam runs onto the field along with his teammates before the start of a game against Georgia in Columbia. Sam hopes his ability is all that matters, not his sexual orientation.

COLUMBIA — Michael Sam is a pioneer.

The consensus first-team All-American defensive end at Missouri came out as gay Sunday night. The co-Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, projected as a mid-round pick, is hoping to become the first openly gay player in NFL history.

“There was going to be a time,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said during Monday’s media session at Faurot Field. “I’m sure there’s actively gay football players in the NFL right now and I’m sure there are in college football. They choose what they want to do and that’s certainly up to them. I think for a lot of people this is a huge step in a positive way. I’m really proud of Mike for the courage he’s displayed doing this.”

The support from his teammates, coaches, the University of Missouri as a whole and the public has been overwhelming. But there’s been reservations voiced concerning the NFL’s readiness for an openly gay player.

Sports Illustrated posted a story on its website after the news broke Sunday night polling eight NFL executives and coaches regarding the topic, granting the sources anonymity so they could share their honest opinions.

“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” an NFL player personnel assistant said in the article. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game. To call somebody a [gay slur] is still so commonplace. It’d chemically imbalance an NFL locker room and meeting room.”

Furthermore, all eight sources polled agreed Sam’s announcement would cause his draft stock to fall.

“I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down,” a veteran NFL scout said in the Sports Illustrated piece. “There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?’”

While anonymous quotes might not carry much weight, they certainly are tough to ignore.

Pinkel doesn’t fall in line with that train of thought, though.

“I’d like to think it wouldn’t (affect his draft stock),” he said. “This is uncharted territories. I think certainly the NFL recognizes societal changes like we all do. I would like to think it wouldn’t affect it at all. Time will tell where he goes. They’re going to have to deal with these same things like everyone else will.”

Maybe Sam’s announcement will be the first step toward the topic of sexual orientation becoming a non-issue in the sports world.

“Hopefully soon,” Missouri director of athletics Mike Alden said Monday. “When these types of things are going to be becoming a non-issue, I think that shows unbelievable progress in who we are. Certainly we understand that it’s an issue now, but when that becomes a non-issue I think that’s a really good thing. Hopefully it will be a non-issue really soon.”

While the NFL and society as a whole are still coming around to the idea of an openly gay player, the environment at Missouri has been nothing but welcoming.

“I hope if there’s an example that can be made for other people to be able to try to work hard to provide a welcoming environment and to be respectful of one another, that’s what the message is that you want to come out,” Alden said. “We’re not 100 percent hitting it on every cylinder. That’s our goal. As we continue to work in that direction and to be able to provide an environment that people can visibly see that maybe there’s some mutual respect there that’s pretty exciting for us to see.”

Alden remembers the initial conversation he had with Sam when the football star divulged his secret. The gist? The news was no big deal.

“Those conversations were just, ‘Hey, man, I’m just really, really proud of you, I love you, and go get ‘em,’” Alden said. “That’s really what it was. … Then we talked about he was going to get some pizza or something. … I don’t mean to make light of this, but for us it’s just who he is and we’re proud of him.”

A question was posed Monday asking if Sam would have been as accepted had he not been such a high-caliber player.

“That’s a tough question,” Missouri assistant athletic director for athletic performance Pat Ivey said. “I would hope that we have other athletes, maybe current or in the future, that may not be all-conference, All-American players, that they would still feel comfortable in our environment.”

Missouri has set a precedent on how to handle these situations. Everything seemed to work out for the Tigers, as they won the SEC East division and finished the season with a No. 5 national ranking.

Now the question is: Will an NFL team follow suit?

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