TIME Sports

Michael Sam’s March to NFL History Derailed—But Only For Now

Michael Sam
Michael Sam on the sidelines during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Miami Dolphins, Aug. 28, 2014 in Miami Gardens, Fla. Lynne Sladky—AP

Michael Sam the NFL player may not have a jersey right now, but he isn’t going anywhere

The Rams cut openly gay rookie defensive end Michael Sam on Saturday, minutes before the NFL’s mandated roster deadline. The news sent shockwaves through the NFL and the LGBT community Saturday afternoon, his march to history seemingly derailed.

Yet for Sam, his journey continues. This is just a hiccup for the man who was the first openly gay man drafted by the NFL, the first openly gay man to play in an NFL preseason game, and who will be the first openly gay man to play in a regular-season NFL game.

Michael Sam the NFL player may not have a jersey right now, but he isn’t going anywhere.

The road to that final piece of immortality is simply a little bumpier now. Sam will have to be signed by another team in the next 24 hours, or he’ll most certainly end up on the Rams’ practice squad. From there, he would continue to work with the staff that drafted him in May, honing his skills and proving his worth on the football field. He would then wait week-to-week as other NFL teams considered picking him up or until the Rams activated him for a game.

The journey isn’t over, it just took a left turn.

Sam was born to be this man. Growing up in a rough-and-tumble neighborhood he survived tragedy after tragedy as a child, surrounded by drug dealers and coping with the loss of three siblings. His father abandoned the family during his youth. His mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, barred Sam from playing football when he was younger.

His mother banning him from football didn’t take, and neither will this.

Since coming out publicly, Sam has continued to endure. His NFL Draft stock fell in May in part — many including myself believe — because he is openly gay. He endured heavy criticism with the announcement of a docuseries produced by Oprah Winfrey. While many have lauded Sam, there have also been jabs at him, most recently with ESPN’s report on his showering habits.

With more scrutiny and pressure than any seventh-round pick in NFL history, plus the hopes of an entire community on his shoulders, Sam performed well in four preseason games, tallying three sacks and leading the team in tackles just last Thursday against the Miami Dolphins.

The Rams’ decision to cut him is just another hurdle that will ultimately demonstrate the courage and fortitude of a great man.

The man knows how to overcome set-backs and handle pressure. He was made for this trailblazing role. He was made for the NFL.

Many in the LGBT community are lashing out at the NFL today, claiming homophobia. It’s understandable. Gay men have been told for decades they’re not good enough to play football, they’re not welcome in the locker rooms. Some of those messages have even reverberated in 2014. While the Rams’ decision wasn’t based on homophobia, it’s hard not to afford gay men a little foot-stomping at this latest rejection.

You know who isn’t lashing out? Michael Sam. He knew this was always a possibility, part of the cold business that is the NFL. A coach is your mentor and father-figure one day. The next afternoon he gives you a pink slip. Sam understands this is not the end, but rather another opportunity to prove his doubters wrong, earn his spot at the very top of his profession and take his rightful place in history.

“The most worthwhile things in life rarely come easy,” Sam said in a statement after learning the Rams’ decision. “This is a lesson I’ve always known.

“The journey continues.”

Zeigler is co-founder and editor of Outsports.com.

TIME Sports

YouTube Celebration of LGBT Athletes Signals Turning Tide in Sports

The video-sharing website will celebrate Gay Pride with a #ProudToPlay campaign, another sign that the long-held divide between two communities is eroding.

When we started Outsports.com in 1999 nobody wanted to talk about gay people in sports. Gay athletes like Corey Johnson and Esera Tuaolo were coming out in a trickle. Sports journalists didn’t want to ask questions about the subject. Straight people thought gay men couldn’t play sports; Heck, gay people thought gay men didn’t want to play sports.

Fifteen years later, that has transformed. Athletes are flooding out of the closet. The LGBT community has embraced sports, and some of our greatest sports institutions have welcomed gay athletes.

Now YouTube – the most powerful multi-media company in the world – has dedicated its entire celebration of Gay Pride to sports.

This is no accident.

Sure, sports are a hot topic with the coming out of high-profile athletes like Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Brittney Griner and Derrick Gordon. Yet YouTube’s embracing of LGBT sports is much more than a celebration of the flavor du jour. It reflects a changing tide in the sports world that just weeks or months ago many thought “impossible.”

Sports and the gay community are now forever joined at the hip.

For decades we’ve focused on what drives a wedge between the sports world and the LGBT community. Yet these two cultural powerhouses have long exemplified the same core values. Courage. Heroism. Inner strength. Good, plain fun.

It’s no surprise these are the same values drawing big companies to embrace the LGBT sports movement. While we’ve been told for years that big-name athletes coming out in sports risk losing endorsement deals, the opposite has been true.

When Collins and Griner came out, Nike embraced them. Nike has even created a gay-pride-themed campaign, #BeTrue, that helps fund the LGBT Sports Coalition, a group of people aimed at ending anti-LGBT bias in sports.

When Sam came out, endorsement offers poured in. Visa stepped up to the plate in May with a commercial featuring Sam just before the Draft.

Now YouTube is wrapping its arms around LGBT athletes with their powerful #ProudToPlay campaign. It’s not just a nod to the importance of sports in the LGBT community: It’s a bold statement of the importance of sports in our movement’s journey. Last year their campaign revolved around the theme of “love.” This year, for YouTube, sports embodies not just the struggle of LGBT athletes, but the pride of the entire community.

For the last decade, the advancement of gay rights in America has gone hand-in-hand with the transforming culture in sports. The big-time macho sports like football, basketball, baseball, soccer and hockey have long been the bellwethers for masculinity in America. Shifting the attitudes in these sports has been instrumental not just in opening the sports themselves to LGBT people, but opening minds in general.

When a high school soccer player comes out in Indiana and introduces the team to her girlfriend, her teammates celebrate victories with them both.

When an NFL draftee kisses his boyfriend on national television and is introduced by the St. Louis Rams three days later, it becomes a lot harder for people on the outskirts of the Bible belt to support Missouri’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

And when YouTube engages gay and straight athletes of the highest profile to share their support for equality, every single person on the Internet listens. Sports culture – American culture – shifts.

Fifteen years ago, sports and the LGBT community weren’t just on opposite teams, they were playing on different courts all together.

Now LGBT pioneers like Harvey Milk, politico David Mixner and Stonewall veterans like the recently deceased Storme DeLarverie have passed the ball to LGBT athletes and sports activists like Anna Aagenes, Brittney Griner, Anthony Nicodemo, Chris Mosier and so many other members of the LGBT Sports Coalition.

YouTube’s celebration of that transition, along with other companies like Nike, brings the triumphant conclusion of the entire LGBT-rights movement a whole lot closer.

Zeigler is co-founder and editor of Outsports.com.

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.

TIME Sports

Michael Sam Won’t Be the Gay Tebow

Michael Sam
Missouri senior defensive lineman Michael Sam speaks to the media during an NCAA college football news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, in Irving, Texas. Brandon Wade—AP

204 days before the NFL season starts, the "media circus" over the first gay player is already over

The media circus. It’s one of the hot topics NFL players and anonymous front-office execs have raised in the last few days when asked about openly gay NFL prospect Michael Sam. There will be such a “media circus” surrounding the soon-to-be NFL rookie, goes the story, that teams and players are afraid of selecting him in the NFL Draft this spring.

This has been the canard “experts” have used for years to explain why NFL teams might not want a gay player. The media strategy by Sam’s team from day one has taken aim at undermining the “media circus” rationalization, and we’re beginning to see its effect.

Just a few days after Sam’s big announcement, sports talk radio is moving past the topic. Sports Illustrated’s Web site has no mention of Sam in their top 20 stories; ESPN has one link. Popular sports blogs SBNation and Deadspin have a couple stories, but the coverage is fading fast.

The media is already tired of talking about Michael Sam. It was the plan from the very start.

“We’re letting the air out of the balloon before he ever steps foot on an NFL field,” said Howard Bragman, Sam’s publicist. “Our timing is the best thing that could have happened for these teams.”

(MORE: Be Smart, NFL: Football Is Ready For Michael Sam)

Some talking heads have questioned Sam’s judgment in coming out before the NFL Draft. “He’ll hurt his draft stock,” has been the yarn spun by many of the “experts.” It’s easy to say that in the midst of the media circus that unfolded in the hours after his big public announcement Sunday afternoon. Those same people are starting to see the brilliance of making the announcement just a week after the Super Bowl, a full seven months before the start of the 2014 season. By the time the rubber hits the road, the story will be dead.

“Imagine what would happen if we did this after he was drafted,” Bragman said. “By doing this two weeks before the combine and three months before the draft, we’re letting people absorb this so everyone can have their say and move on.”

By the time the Draft rolls around in early May, the media will have been talking about Sam’s sexual orientation for three months. They will have interviewed hundreds of NFL players. They will have written ad nauseum about his background, growing up in Texas. His time as an openly gay player at Missouri will have been beaten to death. The effect of his sexual orientation on his draft stock, the “locker room issue,” his relationships – all of it will have been covered extensively.

After just three days, many in the media are already tired of talking about it. The Scott & BR radio show out of San Diego lamented when I was the on the air with them yesterday: “Can we get back to talking football?” There are only so many times you can talk about “the reaction to Michael Sam coming out.” We’ve already moved on to focusing on the reaction to the reaction.

By May, Sam will have appeared in a press conference at the Combine. His team knows that a Chris Christie-length Q&A session – answering every question the media could have – will help leave no stone unturned. The media will have seen him out on the field at his Missouri Pro Day, participating along with teammates, another opportunity to ask the questions. Certainly there will be some questions around the Draft – yet another chance for the media to get it out of their system.

(MORE: Michael Sam’s Test for Gay Rights)

By the time he enters training camp with his new teammates – 23 weeks from now – the circus will be on a train headed to the next sensational story.

Certainly every step along Sam’s journey will break some new ground. In May, he’ll be the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team. Later that month, he’ll be the first to participate in organized team activities. There will be his first practice, his first preseason game and his first regular-season game in September.

But those are one-day stories, if that. There may be a couple extra cameras, but there will be no circus. The media will have exhausted the story of Sam as a gay player and the focus will be on the football.

That’s been Sam’s focus since Monday. He knew he would have to spend some time talking about his sexual orientation with a few members of the media last week. He’ll have to engage in it again in small spurts in the coming months. Otherwise, he’s focused on football.

“The only person who doesn’t think there’s a media circus is Micahel Sam, who has been working on football 12 hours a day since the story broke,” Bragman said.

While some compare this to the distractions Tim Tebow brought to the team, the two couldn’t be more different. Sam won’t be tweeting about his sexual orientation and slipping his sexuality into every statement the way Tebow did with Jesus and the Bible. Tebow infused his religion into everything he did, praising god to the press, leading a very public team prayer after every game, kneeling before God after success on the field. For Sam, his sexual orientation is just part of him. He doesn’t feel the need to proselytize for the “gay cause.”

Unlike Tebow’s religion, Sam will not make his sexual orientation the story. Tebow invited the media attention; Sam is already doing what it takes to minimize its impact on his future team.

Come draft day, NFL teams will be smart to read the tea leaves: Evaluate Sam’s worth without fear of a media circus that’s already mostly run its course. If a team doesn’t heed the warning, he’ll be sacking their quarterback for a smarter team that “stole” him in the draft.

MORE: Football’s Cowardice Comes Out

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

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