For Openly Gay Football Player, Coming Out Came In Stages

Former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam announced over the weekend that he was gay. Sam, who likely will soon enter the upcoming NFL draft, may become the first openly gay player ever in the NFL. Melissa Block gets the story behind Sam's decision from Cyd Zeigler, the editor and co-founder of OutSports, a sports news website that is dedicated to covering lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

We're going to hear a bit more now about Michael Sam and his decision to come out ahead of the NFL draft. Sam and his agents carefully crafted their coming out strategy with a small team. It included journalist and advocate Cyd Zeigler. He's editor and co-founder of OutSports.com. That's a website dedicated to covering LGBT athletes.

Mr. Zeigler, welcome to the program.

CYD ZEIGLER: Well, things are having me.

BLOCK: And you write that Michael Sam came out to his teammates at Missouri last summer. How did he do it and, in the end, how big a secret was this? Or was this something that a lot of people already knew?

ZEIGLER: Yeah, it was kind of spur of the moment thing. The team was coming back from break and the coaches wanted to have kind of a get-to-know-you ice breaker. So they brought the team in and asked guys to share things that they didn't think the rest of the team knew about them. And Michael thought about it and he said: Well, I guess this is as good a time as any.

So he stood up and said: Some of you might know but probably most of you don't know that I'm gay. And he said they all embraced him and the team obviously went on to a fantastic season, as did he individually.

BLOCK: Well, timing was key here - that decision of Michael Sam deciding to come out before the NFL draft. Why did you land there? Why not wait and not potentially risk hurting his chances of being drafted?

ZEIGLER: Well, there were a couple of things. First, as far as before or after the draft, Michael wanted to go to a team that wanted him. And he had been out to his team and he did not feel like going back in the closet. The other piece was that because various media entities knew and so many scouts knew, they knew it wasn't going to somebody who would talk between now and the draft. And they figure they might as well own it and do it now.

BLOCK: Well, I want to ask you about the reaction that's been coming in, a lot of it anonymously from NFL executives. They're quoted as saying, in Sports Illustrated, that Michael Sam's draft prospects have sunk. One NFL scout says: Look, locker rooms are stuck in the '50s. Do you think there will be a backlash?

ZEIGLER: Anybody who said that should resign. You know, the National Football League teams are in the business to make it to the biggest media circus in the world. That is the Super Bowl. And if a general manager cannot find a way to keep his team focused on that, instead of distracted by some cameras or questions about the sexual orientation of a player, then he's not doing his job.

BLOCK: Cyd, you describe in your story a coming-out party that was held over the weekend for Michael Sam at his publicist's house in L.A., and you were there along with what sounds like a who's who of out gay athletes. One of them is the former NFL running back Dave Kopay. He came out in 1975. But all the - a number of other players, all of whom go came out after their professional careers were over. And I wonder what those conversations were like between those athletes and Michael Sam, talking about the culture then and now.

ZEIGLER: I think the biggest thing was support, that they wanted Michael to know that he has a support structure there for him that they did not have. And it was also pretty special watching Dave Kopay and Michael Sam kind of take a few moments together. They each represent the first in the NFL - the first former player to come out and now the first soon-to-be active player to come out. And it was neat to kind of watch those two corners of history just steal a few moments in the corner by themselves.

BLOCK: You have a line in your piece, you're quoting Michael Sam's publicist, Howard Bragman, saying: Michael is a football player not an activist. What are the implications of that?

ZEIGLER: Michael's activism is simply stepping foot into an NFL locker room and on the football field. Nobody has done it before. He needs to focus on football. He needs to get on a team. In a year, two years from now once he's established, and he has a career going, then that's another issue. But right now, his greatest activism is simply doing the best he possibly can on an NFL football field.

BLOCK: In the end, do you think that Michael Sam has hurt his draft chances by coming out beforehand?

ZEIGLER: No. People talking about him not being drafted is not even a possibility. That's totally ridiculous. And if somehow the impossible happened, I think that he would have a lawsuit on his hands, an antidiscrimination lawsuit. And the NFL would have a lot of explaining to do.

BLOCK: Cyd Ziegler is editor and co-founder of OutSports.com. Cyd, thanks very much for talking with us.

ZEIGLER: Thank you for talking about it.

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