RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Michael Sam is an All-American football player at the University of Missouri. He is expected to be a draft pick in a top round for the NFL this spring. And yesterday, he publicly came out as gay in interviews with ESPN and the New York Times. Sam could be the first openly gay player in the NFL, if coming out doesn't affect his chances as a draft pick.
Sports reporter John Branch, of The New York Times, joined us to talk about it. Good morning.
JOHN BRANCH: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, this is a very rare event, this prospect of a gay player in the NFL. Put it into context for us.
BRANCH: Yeah, as of this point there's never been an openly gay player in the NFL. This would be the first actually among those major male sports. There are a few out athletes in women's sports and team sports, such as the WNBA. But in the major men's sports - the NBA, Major League Baseball, the NFL - we've never had an openly gay active athlete. Occasionally you'll see an athlete come out after retirement but never while they're in the midst of their career.
MONTAGNE: Well, tell us more then about Michael Sam who is in the very early stages of his career.
BRANCH: Yeah, what makes him very interesting is, like I say, you know, some men have come out after they've retired. Michael Sam's doing almost the opposite, he's come out before even begins. He was an All-American at Missouri as a defensive end. He came out to his team a year ago before his senior season, so they've known for a half a year at least.
But the draft for the NFL is coming up in May and Michael wanted to come out publicly now because he felt like there were rumors swirling about. And he thought let's just end any speculation now and he came out and boldly proclaimed that he was gay, potentially at the risk of his professional career.
MONTAGNE: Well, though, you kind of wonder, you think today with anti-discrimination laws and whatnot, if he would be hurt. But, of course, also the NFL has already issued a very welcoming response. But you do suggest that this move could pose some risk for him in your story in The New York Times.
BRANCH: Yeah, you know, we'll never quite know. The NFL has had sort of a checkered recent past with some issues surrounding this. There have been some players who have made some homophobic remarks in the past year, even within the past week, saying that I don't think the NFL is ready for a gay player, you know, what, I'm trying to go take a shower and somebody looks at me.
There's still that locker room mentality that, I think, people worry about. And what we don't know is come draft time, will a team look at Michael Sam and say. look, I don't have any problems with that but maybe we don't need the headache, maybe we don't need the attention from the media, and maybe we don't need to sort of ruffle any feathers. They might avoid them.
We may not know that unless we see that Michael Sam really drops in the draft from where he's expected to be taken.
MONTAGNE: As big a moment as this is, I'm wondering if this appears to be the beginning of a change. Or will the reaction tell us whether this is the beginning of the change in attitudes about gay players?
BRANCH: Yeah, it's really interesting because I think, you know, we've seen public sentiment towards the gay rights movement has been going pretty hard in one direction. And for whatever reason, professional sports has been very slow and sort of behind a curve on this. And I think there is a sense that maybe once one person comes out and shows that they aren't going to be discriminated against - or that they can thrive in one of these leagues as an openly gay person - then maybe that would open up those gates for others. And then others will then follow.
Everybody is looking for that one pioneer to sort of get things rolling. And as of now, Michael Sam looks like the most likely candidate to be that pioneer.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much.
BRANCH: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That was John Branch of The New York Times.
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