It’s been almost one year since Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted by the NFL. The historic moment, punctuated by a televised celebratory smooch with Sam’s now-fiancé Vito Cammisano, established Sam not only as an athlete on the rise, but an icon in the making.
From stadiums to sit-downs with Oprah, Sam’s impact has been felt on and off the field. The seventh of eight children, he persevered through tragedy. He lost two siblings, watching one die from a gunshot wound, while two of his other siblings are in prison. He became the first member of his family to attend college when he was offered a football scholarship from the University of Missouri. He came out to his coaches and teammates, but then came out publicly ahead of the NFL via The New York Times in 2014, creating a media storm around his opportunity to make history. Even First Lady Michelle Obama shared her excitement.
Even though a poll at the time said 86 percent of polled NFL players would welcome an openly gay teammate, Sam did face his fair share of backlash and criticism. He was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round, making his professional debut in August of 2014, but was released from the team later that month. Just two days later, the Dallas Cowboys added Sam to their practice team, but they would waive him the following October.
Despite these setbacks, Sam has continued to be a magazine coverboy and media darling. See some of our favorite Michael Sam moments, AFTER THE JUMP …
Sam's first big exposure came with his public coming out in February 2014. He gave an extended interview to The New York Times (which you can see some of in the clip above). “I don’t think I should be defined as Michael Sam, the gay athlete, the gay football player. I want to be defined Michael Sam for being a great person and having great character,” he said. “I want to be a football player. I want to be playing in the NFL … I may be the first, but I won’t be the last. and I think only good things are going to come from this.” In an interview late last year, he told GQ he regretted the way he came out, suggesting his public announcement hurt his position in the draft. “If I had it my way, I never would have done it the way I did.”
If Sam’s coming out made waves, his televised kiss with his boyfriend caused a tidal wave. The kiss aired live on ESPN, punctuating his historic draft pick with one of the greatest LGBT television milestones in history. Of course, it also drew the ire of conservative viewers, whose hackles were raised with the usual “Won’t anyone please think of the children?” rhetoric. The reaction to the kiss underscored the persistent discomfort audiences have with the LGBT community, despite advancements in equality. A poll following the broadcast of the kiss revealed that although 60 percent of Americans would approve of an openly-gay athlete on their favorite team, a majority said they felt it was inappropriate for the kiss to be aired. (This video hilariously addresses that discomfort while calling out the hypocrisy of sports fans supporting other athletes with much more morally questionable behavior.)
Part of what makes Sam such a powerful figure is his understanding of the responsibility he has as a trailblazer. For example, check out the emotional speech he gave (above) when he was awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. In it he says: “Arthur Ashe said, 'Do what you can.' Those have been very meaningful words to me. The way I see it, my responsibility at this moment in history is to stand up for everybody out there who wants nothing more than to be themselves openly. Recently, a friend asked me to talk to his sister, a young woman who was considering killing herself rather than accepting and sharing with her loved ones the fact that she's gay. When we spoke, she told me she would never consider hurting herself and that somehow my example helped her. It's amazing to think that, by just doing what we can, we can all touch, change and even save lives.”
Not all of the media attention has been positive, of course. One of the most egregious examples was an ESPN report on Sam’s shower habits, further fueling the paranoia about gays in the locker room. Even when he’s been faced with ignorance or downright hate, Sam has responded with grace, wit and humility. His fans and community have also come to his side. When the vile Westboro Baptist Church attempted to boycott his return to his alma mater to accept the 2014 Cotton Bowl Championship trophy, a massive counter-protest shut them out and greeted Sam with a standing ovation inside the stadium.
Recently, Sam competed on the current season of Dancing With the Stars. Although he was eliminated in the fourth week, he and partner Peta Murgatroyd performed an emotional rumba that told the story of Sam’s father’s struggle to accept his sexuality.
What is your favorite Michael Sam moment?