Young, Gifted, Gay and Proud: Michael Sam

I AM GAY. With those three words Michael Sam made history as the first openly gay African American male to possibly be drafted into the ranks of the NFL. I can only imagine that an enormous weight has been lifted from this 24-year-old man's shoulders -- all 6'3", 260 pounds of him.

Sam is projected to be chosen in the early rounds of the NFL draft in April, leading to what could be a very lucrative pro career. In an interview with ESPN and the New York Times, he said that he decided to come out publicly now because he sensed that rumors about his sexuality were circulating. He went on to say in these interviews that he had come out to his teammates at the University of Missouri last year; The team went on to have a stellar season as Missouri finished 12-2 and won the Cotton Bowl. Sam was a first-team all-American and the Associated Press named him defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, widely considered the top league in college football.

His teammates voted him Missouri's most valuable player.

Now, by making this public declaration before he is drafted, some question whether this might be a potential detriment to his professional career.

Some have voiced their opinion that Sam should have waited until after he was drafted to "come out." However, I believe Sam has shown enormous strength, courage and integrity by coming out before the draft.

A gay man of color today in the U.S. faces a variety of challenges. A gay man of color in the NFL faces these challenges tenfold. What I have learned from years as a professional social worker is that living a lie about your identity makes for a miserable life. The time and energy spent hiding your true self from friends, family and co-workers is mentally and physically exhausting. I can only imagine the sense of euphoria that Sam felt earlier this year when he "came out" to his teammates, and how that feeling must be intensified this week as he acknowledges himself to the entire world.

Certainly, Sam's acknowledgement comes as he prepares to enter a profession with an uber-macho culture, and where controversies over heterosexism and instances of homophobia have attracted recent attention. The NFL has come under scrutiny recently for behaviors exhibited by some of its players that, in other fields of work, would be deemed totally unacceptable, and in many instances illegal. The recent incident of Miami Dolphins player Richie Incognito's use of both racist and homophobic language towards rookie Jonathon Martin has been widely reported and remains under investigation.

According to published reports, punter Chris Kluwe has said that he was harassed by coaches and pushed out of a job with the Minnesota Vikings because he vocally supported same-sex marriage laws. Jonathan Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, said in an interview with the NFL Network that he did not want a gay teammate.

There is little doubt Sam would not be the only gay member of the NFL. There have been rumors abounding about gay players in the NFL for years, but most have come out after their retirement, as with NFL player Dave Kopay in the 1970s.

Until now, no one has had the courage to come forward and say, "Yes, I'm gay!"

Sam, who graduated from University of Missouri in December, is the only member of his family to attend college. He grew up in Hitchcock, Texas, about 40 miles southeast of Houston, the seventh of eight children of JoAnn and Michael Sam. He had what has been described as a difficult childhood: Three of his siblings died, and two brothers are in prison, Sam said. He was raised mostly by his mother, and he spent some years with another family. All have been supportive of his coming out.

What is clear to me is that Sam has decided that, rather than existing in a world of pretense, duplicity and subterfuge, it was better for him to come out now, and for him to be able to focus on the future and not have to look over his shoulder, waiting for someone else to tell "his truth" for him.

I for one will be rooting to hear this young mans name called at the NFL draft, no matter what team chooses him; I will be cheering him on for his skill, athleticism, and talent but more importantly, for his courage and integrity. Way to go Michael Sam. Way to go!