Michael Sam could become the first active openly gay football player in the NFL. (Brandon Wade/AP)

Michael Sam could become the first active openly gay football player in the NFL. (Brandon Wade/AP)

Unless all 32 teams in the NFL decide there is no place in the league for a gay player who has acknowledged himself as same, even one who was the best defensive player in the SEC last season, Michael Sam will become the first such player. Sam announced on Sunday that he is gay. His teammates at Missouri, which finished 12-2, fifth in the nation, had known it since before the season began. In an interview with ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” Sam was asked about how he thought the NFL general managers and coaches deciding whom to draft would weigh his sexual orientation.

“It shouldn’t matter,” said Sam. “If I work hard, if I make plays, that’s all that should matter. Can he help us win games? Is he a team player? That’s all that should matter, and I am a team player, I can help teams win games, and that’s all that should matter.”

Among those who felt it was significant that it was Michael Sam saying those things was Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal. He heard the news while he was in Sochi.

“Whenever we had this conversation in the past about athletes in the locker room, there was this weird sort of second-grade conversation that always happened because of distractions,” said Gay. “The idea that teams would just not be able to be competitive, or they’d be just too overcome with distractions to be able to sort of focus upon the winning. And that was obviously anything but the case. Missouri thrived. Michael Sam thrived.”

Among those who agreed with Gay was Patrick Burke, who helped establish You Can Play, an organization dedicated to supporting gay athletes at all levels. You Can Play has officially partnered with the National Hockey League, but Burke has also worked with executives, general managers, and coaches in various other sports, and he’s optimistic about Sam’s transition to the pros.

“I really, truly think the NFL is firmly committed to inclusion,” said Burke. “When you see important and powerful ownership groups, such as Mr. Robert Kraft in New England, the Mara and Tisch families, and the New York Giants, the guys who really run the league are supportive, and everyone else is gonna fall I line, eventually.”

Though Burke is aware of speculation, much of it anonymous, that by acknowledging his sexual orientation, Sam has decreased the likelihood that he’ll be drafted in the early rounds, he feels confident Sam will end up in the right place.

I really, truly think the NFL is firmly committed to inclusion.
– Patrick Burke, You Can Play co-founder
“I would rather have him go in the seventh-round to a team that’s ready for him than go first overall to a team that wasn’t quite prepared for it. So, I’ve talked to several NFL scouting directors, general managers, assistant GM’s, coaches, and we’ve got him pretty solidly in the fourth or fifth round.”

Burke said he hopes Sam will be coached and managed by people who understand that he wants to concentrate on football. He characterized a team that would be prepared to draft Sam as one organized to keep publicity about off-field concerns to a minimum.

But Sam himself understands what his entry into the NFL can signify, and when he was asked during Sunday’s interview what his decision to acknowledge that he is gay might mean to gay students in high school or junior high, he was prepared.

“They shouldn’t be afraid,” said Sam. “They shouldn’t be afraid of who they are, and I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t afraid to be around my teammates. They should be comfortable in their own skin.”

The NFL Draft begins on May 8. Many of the players eligible for that draft will be evaluated during the league’s combine, which will run for four days beginning February 22.