As Missouri supports Michael Sam, will rivals negatively recruit?
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- The football team at the University of Missouri, the one that Michael Sam came out to last summer, expressed its support for its former star the day after Sam announced he was gay in a series of national interviews. Amid all the speculation about how Sam will be received in the NFL, it's important to remember that Mizzou not only embraced him, but also allowed him to make his announcement on his own terms.
Late on Monday afternoon, the school held a press conference in which six officials answered questions for 30 minutes. They became spokespeople, and those who stood in the middle of the scrum could hear the familiar phrases: "core values," "his choice" and "so proud."
Sam also received praise from the First Lady on Twitter, with Michelle Obama just one of the thousands who voiced their support. "You're an inspiration to all of us," she wrote. On Missouri's campus, where Sam was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and starred for a 12-2 team that went on to win the Cotton Bowl, the letters S-A were carved in the snow next to the iconic rock "M" in one end zone at Faurot Field.
The outpouring of support is what makes the following news so disheartening. Multiple SEC assistants say that Sam's coming out will be used by rival schools to negatively recruit against Missouri. "Coaches are going to be all over this," said one assistant at another school.
If that sounds like backward thinking, that's because it is. It also provides insight into the way football coaches operate. Some are tactful in how they approach things. Others, not so much.
"It's a powder keg just waiting to explode," the assistant said.
The assistant predicts that opposing coaches will pose a number of questions. "Why did [Missouri] cover this up?" the assistant said. "What else are they hiding? What were they trying to do? Keep a secret society?"
He added: "I can see it getting really ugly."
Another SEC assistant compared the prospect of coaches negatively recruiting against Missouri to when, according to the assistant, some tried to convince Virginia Tech commitments that the school was full of mass murderers in the aftermath of the campus massacre in 2007. The coach said he would never recruit with such tactics. But others?
Last season, in Missouri's locker room, Sam was not seen as a gay man. He was seen and treated like every other player. Knowledge about his sexual orientation trickled out over time, and when he made his official announcement, the vast majority of people already knew, according to someone within the football program who interacts with the players regularly. The announcement had little to no impact on how the team viewed Sam, the source said.
Sam's announcement came at one of coach Gary Pinkel's "Crossover Dinners" last August. The coaches open with their own introductions, give their names and hometowns and then talk about their wives and children. At this particular dinner, defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski did just that.
After the coaches finish, the players introduce themselves. Eventually, it was Sam's turn to speak. According to Kuligowski, he said, "My name is Michael Sam. I play defensive end. I'm gay." The introductions, Kuligowski said, moved on to the next person with hardly an eyebrow batted or raised.
Asked if the announcement was a distraction, Kuligowski laughed. "I got a lot of concerns," he said. "It was fine."
The source at Mizzou who interacts with the players regularly (he asked to remain anonymous) said that over the course of the season, he barely thought about Sam's sexual orientation. Because the team contained the news, there was no need to think or talk about it on a daily basis.
"He's very masculine, an over-the-top person," the source said of Sam. "If I could pick anyone to be in this situation, it would be Michael."
Pat Ivey, Missouri's assistant athletic director for athletic performance, said that the school attempted to foster an accepting environment before it knew that Sam is gay. Missouri held presentations about inclusiveness. Sam thanked Ivey after one, adding, "I know I can play," at the end.
Ivey said he knew other gay athletes at Missouri, and he knew former athletes who came out after they graduated. But he also noted that Sam's decision "wasn't 100 percent well received by all of our athletes." For some, conversations, meetings and explanations were required.
Sam was always singing, cheering and motivating his team. As a senior, he became the defense's most vocal leader, pulling teammates aside before games and at halftime. The locker room embraced Sam, and the person who works with the team said he never once heard a slur flippantly mentioned in his time with the team.
Even so, there were incidents. One, in particular, took place after training camp before the 2013 season. A freshman who had been redshirted used a derogatory term when addressing Sam. Sam, who stands at 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, had to be restrained, and though the confrontation never became physical, it served as a reminder that not everyone was accepting.
Following Sam's national announcement on Sunday night, some intolerance surfaced, even though it has largely been pushed to the margins. Just take some of the callers on Randy Cross' radio show, for example. Cross, a three-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman and the co-host of The Morning Show in Atlanta, said that while some of his callers identified as Sam supporters, others did not. Some dropped Bible verses. Others labeled Sam's announcement as an "abomination."
Cross lauded Missouri for the way it respected Sam's privacy. In direct contrast to the assistants mentioned above, he saw Mizzou's support as a positive for recruiting. "But it's still a touchy subject for a lot of people," Cross noted. "[The team] would rather not discuss it."
On Sunday night and Monday morning, Sports Illustrated contacted 15 current and former Missouri football players, all of whom played with Sam at one point, and two former assistant coaches. Only two players, linebacker Donovan Bonner and quarterback James Franklin, would comment at any length. Players were encouraged not to address the media on the subject.
"It's his business," said Franklin. "It's none of my business."
Sam's story will soon turn to the NFL draft, something several league executives have already weighed in on. Yet former NFL tight end and Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe said on Monday that the most interesting aspect of Sam's story was its self-containment over the past six months. "For [Missouri] to know this in August, and no one caught it on the national level, for something of this magnitude to take five, six, seven months without hitting the national waves, that's a story in and of itself," he said.
Sharpe doesn't anticipate that Sam's sexual orientation will drastically affect his career -- if he can play, Sharpe said, that's all that matters -- but he said it could be an obstacle.
"I think we've progressed a long way with women's rights, civil rights, gay and lesbian rights," Sharpe said. "But we still have a long way to go. I don't want people to think that because we have a gay athlete with the potential to be drafted by the NFL, that everything is okay. That's not the case."