TIME Sports

Michael Sam Risked Everything—And We All Won

FILE PHOTO: Michael Sam Drafted By The St. Louis Rams
Michael Sam has been drafted by The St. Louis Rams to become the first openly gay player in the NFL. Joe Robbins—Getty Images

History will look back at today as the moment professional sports changed forever.

When Michael Sam’s team and I first started talking about the timing of Michael’s coming out earlier this year, there were some real sensitivities that drove the decisionmaking.

First, it was important that he do it as far ahead of the NFL draft as possible. NFL teams had to settle in with the idea of a gay athlete well before the selection process. It couldn’t be sprung on them weeks before they descended on Radio City Music Hall. Moments after his historic announcement, various experts criticized the timing as too risky, saying he had jeopardized his future in the NFL by coming out before the draft.

But coming out after the draft was never a consideration. Michael wanted to be drafted by a team that wanted him for all that he is. He wasn’t interested in hiding his sexual orientation — trying to keep a secret from his future teammates, coaches and front office. He wanted a team that would embrace him and his boyfriend, one that wouldn’t shy away from the fact that he is gay.

It was all a big risk. But in sports, heroes aren’t made by running the ball up the middle on third and long and then punting. You don’t win anything without risking something.

Michael risked his career. Today, everyone won.

The St. Louis Rams, including general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher, locked up the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, a pass-rushing specialist in a division with Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. They will also, like Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers, forever be linked to breaking a barrier in sports that just weeks ago was thought impossible to overcome.

This wasn’t just a football decision. It was history in the making.

The National Football League demonstrated that it is in fact a meritocracy. Despite the naysayers claiming that Michael would struggle to find a home because NFL teams didn’t want the “distraction” of a gay player, his character, work ethic and skill shone through. He is now the first openly gay active athlete in our nation’s bellwether of masculinity. The NFL has been portraying itself as a welcoming place for all people. Today, that image is reality.

The LGBT community won too. Many gay people were losing faith in the NFL during the draft, as the number of selections remaining dwindled: 30 … 25 … 20 … 15 … 10 … Some tweeted that they would be switching interests to the NBA, where the openly gay Jason Collins was welcomed by the Brooklyn Nets. Suddenly, with the 249th pick in the draft, an openly gay player was welcomed with open arms by a team in the heartland. The advancement of gay rights, including the issuing of same-sex marriage licenses in neighboring Arkansas today, continues.

But most of all, the winner today was Michael Sam.

I don’t bestow the mantle of hero lightly on people. But few in the LGBT community have earned it as powerfully as has Michael. In January, he had a vision of shattering stereotypes and blazing a trail for gay athletes. Coming out was the easy part. Being drafted by an NFL team — and ultimately making a 53-man roster — would be hard. The LGBT community doesn’t have many true national heroes. It has one now on the St. Louis Rams.

As with the professional career of any athlete, the draft is simply the beginning for Michael. In the book that will be written about the year he transformed the sports world forever, the draft will be just Chapter 3. So far, every chapter has a happy ending.

History will look back at today — not the day he came out publicly, but today — as the moment professional sports changed forever. The NFL, the biggest game in town, has drafted an openly gay football player. The bastion of masculinity in our culture just welcomed the kind of person many people believe is the antithesis of masculinity. Heck, New York Jets fans in Radio City Music Hall gave a standing ovation to a draft pick by the Rams — they don’t even do that when the Jets announce their selections!

All of this was impossible.

Now it is all reality.

Zeigler is co-founder and editor of Outsports.com and helped break the Michael Sam story earlier this year. He has also contributed to SBNation, Playboy, CNN and MSNBC, among others.

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