Michael Sam was picked by the St. Louis Rams in the seventh round of the NFL draft Saturday, becoming the first openly gay player drafted by a pro football team.
Sam played at Missouri, and came out as gay in media interviews earlier this year. His team and coaches knew his secret and kept it for his final college season.
He went on to have the best year of his career: He was the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year.
He was taken with the 249th overall pick out of 256. He’ll start his professional career not far from the place where he played his college ball.
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound Sam was considered a mid-to-late round pick, far from a sure thing to be drafted. He played defensive end in college, but he’s short for that position in the NFL and slower than most outside linebackers, the position he’ll need to transition to at the professional level.
The impact of his selection goes far beyond football. At a time when gay marriage is gaining acceptance among Americans, Sam’s entry into the NFL is a huge step toward the integration of gay men into professional team sports. Pro sports have in many ways lagged behind the rest of society in acceptance.
Publicly, most people in and related to the NFL have been supportive of Sam. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said Sam would be welcome in the league and judged solely on his ability to play. A few wondered whether teams would be reluctant to draft Sam because of all the media attention that would come with it.
Fair or not, the NFL — coming off a season in which a bullying scandal involving players on the Miami Dolphins was one of the biggest stories in sports — was looking at a possible public relations hit if Sam was not drafted. He would likely have been signed as a free agent and given a chance to make a team in training camp, but to many it would have looked as if he was being rejected.
Now that he’s here, it could be seen as an opportunity for the NFL to show that crass locker room culture is not as prevalent as it might have looked to those who followed the embarrassing Dolphins scandal.