University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, an NFL draft prospect, told The New York Times tonight that he's gay, a landmark announcement that sets a course for him to become the first openly gay current NFL player.

Sam is an All-American selection who was voted Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. The 6-foot-3, 260-pounder is graded as a third- to fourth-round draft target.

“I just want to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” Sam told The New York Times. “I just want to own my truth.”

It's unclear how NFL teams will regard Sam in light of his disclosure. Sam recorded 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for losses last season and played in the Senior Bowl all-star game.

The New York Times reported that Sam's agent was questioned recently by NFL scouts if Sam had a girlfriend or if the agent had seen his client with women previously.

There is anti-discrimination language in the collective bargaining agreement regarding sexual orientation. NFL teams will be limited by employment policies in what kind of personal questions they can ask Sam at the NFL scouting combine later this month at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Last year, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent the league's sexual orientation anti-discrimination and harassment policy to all coaches, team presidents and general managers and instructed them to pass it on to all players and staff.

The policy states that all NFL personnel responsible for interviewing and hiring draft-eligible players and free agents "must not seek information concerning or make personnel decisions based on a player's sexual orientation. This includes asking questions during an interview that suggest that the player's sexual orientation will be a factor in the decision to draft or sign him."

The memo included the following examples of prohibited questions: "Do you like women or men? How well do you do with the ladies? Do you have a girlfriend."

NFL players have come out in the past, but only after their careers are over. That includes former San Francisco 49ers offensive tackle Kwame Harris and former Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Esera Tualo.

"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage," the NFL said in a statement. "Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."

NBA center Jason Collins announced last year that he's gay, becoming the first NBA player to do so. Since making that announcement, he hasn't been signed by a team.

Last year, former Ravens linebacker and special-teams ace Brendon Ayanbadejo predicted that as many as four gay NFL players could come out simultaneously before later backing off that prediction. No players wound up coming out following Ayanbadejo's prediction.

NFL linebacker Jonathan Vilma recently questioned in an interview with the NFL Network how it would go over to have a gay teammate.

“I think he would not be accepted as much as we think he would be accepted,” Vilma said in the interview.

Sam told The New York Times that he's aware that he may face backlash and extra attention by his decision to discuss his sexual preference.

“I’m not naïve,” Sam said. “I know this is a huge deal, and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the NFL."

Sam told The New York Times that his teammates at Missouri, along with coaches and administrators, were extremely supportive of him. He said that one teammate went with him to a gay pride event in St. Louis.

“Some people actually just couldn’t believe I was actually gay,” Sam said in the interview. “But I never had a problem with my teammates. Some of my coaches were worried, but there was never an issue. Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was. I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay. ...

"I was so proud of myself and I just didn’t care who knew. If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay; is that true?’ I would have said yes. I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not."

awilson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/RavensInsider