Professional sports continued its evolution on Saturday night as Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL prospect, was selected in the seventh round (249th overall) of the 2014 NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams.
— NFL (@NFL) May 10, 2014
Sam came out publicly in February. He had already done so to his teammates at the University of Missouri in August 2013, immediately prior to his final, senior season in Columbia. In the wake of his February revelation he received significant support from within his own fanbase and Missouri will remain his home for the immediate future.
Not everyone was pleased. The milder negative reactions predicted potential locker room unrest. Nuttier elements feared for the future of humanity.
In sporting terms, Sam is a bit of a badass. A relentless defensive metronome, he enjoyed a solid three years at Missouri before exploding during the fourth. In the SEC - college football's toughest, most elite conference and a virtual factory for NFL talent - the defensive end finished last season with 11.5 sacks and made a key play in the 2014 Cotton Bowl victory over Oklahoma State. He would also be named a first-team All-American and, most impressively, SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year.
In spite of Sam's stellar credentials, his draft stock took a plunge only a few weeks after his coming-out. The issue was not his sexuality but a poor showing at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. Fortunately for him, he would rescue his chances with a better performance at Missouri's own pro day.
He may have been left hanging until the last hour of the draft's final day but the Rams organisation, possessed of one of the finest defensive lines in the NFL, seem like a great landing spot. If Sam can produce in a division containing the talented Arizona Cardinals, the perennially favoured San Francisco 49ers and the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, it is unlikely that the city of St. Louis will care very much at all about what he gets up to in his private life.
That said, nothing should be taken for granted. The work starts now. Seventh round picks - especially those selected at the tail end - face a hard task to make September's 53-player season roster. Their chances are only slightly better than those undrafted free agents who go into training camp with more hope than expectation.
Sam is not completely alone of course. Veteran Brooklyn Nets centre Jason Collins revealed his sexuality last year and the team has since reaped significant commerical rewards in securing his services. Collins is a steady journeyman, however, on the downslope of his time in the NBA. His decision to speak out was hardly insignificant but Sam, yet to play a snap for money, has a professional reputation to build, in full view of the world.
It would be naive to believe otherwise but gay men, considerably more talented and better remunerated than the Rams rookie, already earn their livings in the ferocity of the NFL. It is more than likely that some even do so with their colleagues' knowledge. Perhaps the example of one young pioneer will lend them the courage to trust all of us with themselves.
Good luck to them. And to Michael Sam.