Michael Sam's announcement shines an incredibly positive light on Mizzou

Bill Carter

From his redshirt freshman season in 2010 to the Cotton Bowl in January 2014, Michael Sam was the most intense, relentless, high-motor player on the Missouri Tigers' defense. Gary Pinkel said that he was going to use Sam's intensity as a teaching example for the rest of his career. He was by all accounts an incredible teammate, a role model, an example setter. A two-star recruiting afterthought, he became the Defensive Player of the Year in the country's best defensive conference, and he became Missouri's first unanimous All-American in 53 years.

And as we officially learned yesterday, he did this all as a gay man.

And as we also learned, his teammates knew all about it.

Missouri is one of the most politically polarized states in the country. It is rural and urban, southern and midwestern. I've always joked that, Kansas aside, Missouri fans could never possibly hate another fanbase as much as they hate each other. There are plenty of reasons for banning political discussion on an Internet forum -- namely, because discussing politics on the Internet is one of the most depressing, semi-anonymous, divisive, no-win, firestorms-every-day experiences known to man, and I've become a much healthier person since I (mostly) swore off of it -- but on a Missouri forum, it makes even more sense to avoid any "spidery" content. And we've done so as rigidly as possible through the years.

Homosexuality is quite obviously one of those "spidery" topics, as much as I wish it wasn't. But it is a topic that is unavoidable in light of Michael Sam's announcement, so I will just say that even if you believe that homosexuality is a sin, or a regrettable lifestyle choice, or whatever, know this:

1. Today, the reaction of Michael Sam's teammates when he came out to them last summer is being shown as an extreme example of tolerance and togetherness in sports.

Gary Pinkel talks nonstop about creating a family environment and a spirit of unity on his team; his success in doing this will now be the model to which all other programs are compared. Words like "tolerance" and "family" should never be spidery or divisive. Missouri is currently an example of everything good about a team. This is a very, very good thing. A wonderful thing, in fact.

Rural or urban, Republican or Democrat, Christian or non, the team embraced Michael Sam. Our community, and the Mizzou community as a whole, has no excuse for not doing the same.

2. A college football team has 85 scholarship players, a hefty number of walk-ons, and a giant coaching and support staff. The diversity of political and religious beliefs on a football team spans from one extreme to another. The Missouri football team and all of its divergent pieces rallied around Michael Sam, played beside him, showered with him, and went to battle with him every Saturday last fall. Most of us had no idea about Sam's sexuality; all we knew was that this team had better chemistry than just about any in Missouri's history.

Elvis Fisher (tweet above) is, per his Twitter exploits, a pretty hardcore Republican. I'm almost positive Gary Pinkel is, too. (Hell, so is SI's Andy Staples, for that matter. See this and this tweet for why I bring that up.) Rural or urban, Republican or Democrat, Christian or non, the team embraced Michael Sam. Our community, and the Mizzou community as a whole, has no excuse for not doing the same.

(And by the way, a tweet from Eric Waters last night shows us that there's nothing easy about any of this. There's no such thing as 100% unity. But whatever struggles people were going through behind the scenes, the chemistry this team showed publicly, both on the field and last night, was an achievement.)

Michael Sam is a True Son, one of the greatest in the history of Missouri Football, and last night he quite possibly did more good for himself, the Missouri program, and the LGBT community than he ever did on the football field. This is a very good day to be a Missouri fan and/or alum, and I really, really hope that we can all see that no matter our political religious beliefs. If the team can, we can. One day announcements like this won't be a big deal; today, it is a huge deal.


Outsports.com: NFL prospect Michael Sam comes out as gay

His teammates were universally accepting and he said he did not have any problems on the team about it. He said that he even occasionally took straight teammates to gay clubs, including at the recent Cotton Bowl in Dallas, a sign of their embrace of him and the fun they had hanging out with the gregarious, outgoing Sam. One even attended gay pride event with him in St. Louis. For a time, he was also dating a member of the Missouri men's swimming team and did not hide that relationship from teammates. In fact, he said his openly dating the swimmer was the obvious clue for his teammates before he told the team in August.

For Sam, the stress and trauma he suffered growing up in Hitchcock, Texas, has more than prepared him for anything he will face for being openly gay, he said. He was raised by a single mom after his parents separated, the youngest boy of their eight children. He said he was a "punching bag" for his older brothers growing up and wanted to excel at sports so he could leave his hometown behind. He has had three siblings who have died and two brothers who have been in and out of jail. He only told his parents of his sexual orientation last week.

His agents have been totally behind Sam's decision. "We’ve had a lot of people tell us not to do this," Barkett said. "Friends, prominent business people. But it's something Cameron and I were asked to help with. And to say no to someone regardless of what the situation is, that’s not in our personal beliefs. Mike entrusted us with this, and we want to make sure it's done right for Mike and the gay community as a whole."

Outsports.com: 'The eagle has landed': The exclusive behind-the-scenes story of how NFL prospect Michael Sam came out
ESPN.com: Former Missouri Tigers defensive end Michael Sam says he's gay
ESPN.com (LZ Granderson): Michael Sam a novelty? Not really

It won't be everyone's idea of a party, of course. Some owners, maybe coaches, will shy away from the best defensive player in what is widely considered the best conference in college football simply because he's gay. There will be veterans who will publicly applaud while privately object to having Sam -- or any other openly non-heterosexual male -- on the field, in the locker rooms, in the showers.

But there are plenty of secure men -- such as Houston's Bill O'Brien, such as Seattle's Pete Carroll, such as the Patriots' Bob Kraft and the Saints' Drew Brees -- who will look at Sam and ask themselves the most important question: Can he help me win? The same way Lombardi looked at gay players, such as Dave Kopay (who played from 1964-72) and Washington Ring of Fame member Jerry Smith (1965-77), and decided yes.

If one of the most hard-nosed coaches in the history of the game could handle gay players in his locker room in the 1960s -- back when men and women were arrested for being gay -- I would think there's at least one coach who is man enough to handle a gay player in 2014. Especially if this player is the SEC's season leader in sacks (11½) and became the first Mizzou player to be a unanimous First Team All-America selection by the Football Writers Association of America in more than 50 years.

Remember, Missouri finished the year No. 5, completing one of the best seasons in school history -- after Sam came out. The only distraction was from all of the confetti that fell after the Tigers beat the Oklahoma State Cowboys 41-31 in the Cotton Bowl.

Sam had a sack in that game, too.

New York Times: N.F.L. Prospect Proudly Says What Teammates Knew: He’s Gay
MUtigers.com: Mizzou Athletic Comments Supporting Michael Sam

HEAD COACH Gary Pinkel

On Michael Sam's announcement

"We're really happy for Michael that he's made the decision to announce this, and we're proud of him and how he represents Mizzou. Michael is a great example of just how important it is to be respectful of others, he's taught a lot of people here first-hand that it doesn't matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we're all on the same team and we all support each other. If Michael doesn't have the support of his teammates like he did this past year, I don't think there's any way he has the type of season he put together.

We talk all the time here in our program about how one of our core values is to respect the cultural differences of others, and this certainly applies. We view ourselves as one big family that has a very diverse collection of people from all walks of life, and if you're part of our family, we support you.

Looking back, I take great pride in how Michael and everyone in our program handled his situation. This past August, Michael was very direct with the team when he decided to let everyone know that he is gay. We discussed how to deal with that from a public standpoint, and ultimately Michael decided that he didn't want that to be the focal point of the season. He wanted to focus on football and not do anything to add pressure for him or for his teammates, and I think that's a great example of the kind of person he is. We left it that whenever he felt the time was right, however he wanted to make the announcement, that we had his back and we'd be right there with him.

We're very proud of Michael and the courage he has displayed for coming out. We look forward to following his career, and the success he's going to have."

DIRECTOR OF ATHLETICS MIKE ALDEN

On Michael Sam's announcement

"We are so proud of Michael for what he has accomplished at Mizzou academically, socially and competitively. This is a young man who earned his degree from MU, was a unanimous All-American on the football field and now he's being a leader in his personal life. He continues to display great character, courage and compassion. We are proud of him on every level.

We work very hard at the University of Missouri to provide an environment that is respectful and inclusive of all people. We're pleased with the strides we've made over the years with our student-athletes, coaches and staff about respecting and celebrating our differences. We continue to grow every day. We talk all the time about our core value of respect, and we emphasize that in a number of ways, whether it's through individual actions, team settings, public efforts such as our `If You Can Play, You Can Play' video, and even our Men-for-Men and Women-for-Women programs.

The University's theme is called `One Mizzou.' What that theme represents is that we are all family, we are all Tigers, and we should all respect and appreciate each other.

We wish Michael all the best in all that he does."

The Trib (Behind the Stripes): Michael Sam: 'I am an openly, proud gay man'
The Trib: Sam, teammates proved gay athlete shouldn't have to choose secrecy
Post-Dispatch: Michael Sam: 'I am gay'
KC Star: Missouri football star Michael Sam announces he is gay
KC Star: Michael Sam goes from football star to pioneer
KC Star: NFL Prospect Michael Sam Comes Out
KC Star: Tweets of support for Michael Sam's announcement that he is gay
KC Star: Teammate proud that Michael Sam ‘had the courage to come out’
The Missourian: Missouri defensive end Michael Sam comes out publicly as gay
The Missourian: Michael Sam: I believe it's the right time
The Missourian: Missouri athletes, alumni react to Michael Sam announcement
The Missourian: Gay MLS player, formerly closeted NFL player speak out on Sam
The Missourian: Internet reacts to Michael Sam announcing he is gay
The Missourian: Columbia's gay community rejoices after Sam's announcement
The Missourian: The Sam story began brewing in August
PowerMizzou: Reaction to Michael Sam's revelation
Fox Sports MW: Support pours in for Michael Sam on social media
Fox Sports MW: Michael Sam was brave; an NFL team will have to be equally so
KBIA Sports: Michael Sam comes out as a gay man, could be first openly gay player in NFL
KBIA Sports: People flood social media with responses to Michael Sam coming out announcement
Team Speed Kills: Missouri DE Michael Sam Announces He's Gay
CBS Sports: Twitter reaction: Michael Sam comes out
SI.com (Stewart Mandel): Michael Sam breaks longstanding barrier by announcing he is gay
SI.com (Andy Staples): Michael Sam: From unheralded recruit to unstoppable SEC force

Sam's teammates were equally impressed with the player who cracked them up with his constant singing at practice and wowed them with his ability to shed offensive tackles and reach the quarterback. "He's just a beast on the field," linebacker Donovan Bonner said a few days before Missouri faced Auburn in the SEC title game. "I've watched him mature on and off the field. ... He helps the defense out a lot. He's become a leader. He was in the shadow of some great defensive ends over the years. ... It's his time to shine. He stepped into that role, and he's really excelled at a level that no one expected."

Despite those gaudy statistics and a leadership role with the Tigers, Sam said very little publicly during the 2013 season. He spoke to reporters after the Vanderbilt game on Oct. 5, and then he didn't give an interview again until he hit the postseason awards circuit. Considering rumors about his sexuality were being posted on some message boards as early as August 2012, the media blackout by the typically outgoing Sam makes far more sense now. The question could have come at any time, and Sam might not have been prepared to answer. Now, Sam made his announcement before everyone's least favorite talent evaluator, Anonymous NFL Scout, could leak Sam's business to the wider world.

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