NFL prospect's announcement has some gay athletes of earlier days marveling at widespread support
By CHILDS WALKER AND JEFF BARKER
Feb 11, 2014 | 12:26 AM
As a Maryland football player, Akil Patterson felt pangs of disappointment every time he typed the words "gay athlete" into an online search engine, hoping against hope to find someone else like him.
Patterson reflected Monday on how different the culture has become since he came out in 2006 — after leaving Maryland.
When he heard Missouri defensive end and NFL prospect Michael Sam announce Sunday night that he is gay, Patterson marveled at Sam's inner strength and at the support now available to gay athletes.
"An amazing feat," said Patterson, who later became an unpaid Maryland wrestling assistant coach and now advises the university on special projects. He is youth programs director for Athlete Ally, a nonprofit public awareness group founded by former Terps wrestler Hudson Taylor.
"When I first came out, there was no support," Patterson said. "It was kind of like, 'Akil, go over there.' It was like no one knew how to deal with it. [Sam] knew he had the support of people around. That's outstanding."
When Sam came out in separate interviews with The New York Times and ESPN, he threw down a gauntlet.
Sam, 24, is not a player at the end of his career, but the reigning Southeastern Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year and a consensus middle-round prospect for the 2014 draft. If he is not drafted, the NFL surely will face widespread criticism for remaining behind the times. If he is drafted, he will become a pioneer in the nation's most popular, and arguably most macho, professional league.
Regardless, Sam has made himself the new face of a cultural shift that has begun to sweep through American professional sports over the last year.
Last April, NBA veteran Jason Collins became the first active male player in an American professional team sports to declare himself openly gay.
The next month, Robbie Rogers, a former Maryland soccer star who had come out in February 2013, came out of retirement and played for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer.
Others such as former NFL player Kwame Harris and women's basketball star Brittney Griner also came out last year. Meanwhile, straight athletes such as former Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo became outspoken advocates for gay rights both inside and outside of sports.
Beyond stories of individual athletes coming out, activists have generated headlines with their fervent opposition to anti-gay policies in Russia leading up to the current Sochi Olympics.
"In the last year alone, we have seen more athletes come out and more teams and leagues make a stand than at any time in history," said Taylor, the former Maryland wrestler who has devoted himself to eradicating homophobia in sports.
As they did with Collins, athletes and executives have responded to Sam's announcement with encouragement.
ESPN analyst and former NFL star Keyshawn Johnson was among those who applauded the prospect's courage.
"At the end of the day, if he can help you win, who cares?" Johnson said. "I don't think NFL teams are going to really care, to be honest with you."
Sam came out to teammates before last season and acknowledged Sunday that many had known he was gay for years. By all accounts, the team and the wider university community embraced him wholeheartedly. On Monday, images of the name "SAM" drawn in the snow at Missouri's Faurot Field circulated.
"Every time we hear these stories, we see positive support from teammates and fans," Taylor said. "Once you have a person who is a teammate or a friend … the issue becomes a lot more personal."
Which is not to say that all or even most questions about the acceptance of openly gay players have been answered.
Collins, for example, has wanted to join a team for his 13th NBA season. Mostly a reserve player in recent seasons, he remains unsigned.
If Sam faces similar problems earning a job, doubts will intensify about teams' willingness to embrace gay players.
"It will be interesting to see which owner and general manager steps up and drafts him." Johnson said. "Show us. You say all the right things. Now let's see now if you draft him."
In an interview published on the team's website, Ravens president Dick Cass said the franchise would have no reservations about drafting an openly gay player, and added that he is "disappointed it is such a big issue in 2014."
NFL draft analyst Russ Lande, a former St. Louis Rams and Cleveland Browns scout, said Sam lacks the athleticism of elite prospects but that he could see the defensive end being picked anywhere from the third to fifth round in May.
Lande said some less established coaches and general managers might be reluctant to draft a player who will attract so much off-field publicity.
On a team "with established leaders, I don't think this will play much of a role," he said of Sam's announcement. "This kid has no character issues. This is a good kid, hard worker, tough guy. … I would be very surprised if it drastically affected his draft stock."
Taylor is optimistic, if cautiously so. He termed the recent spate of coming-out stories as "not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning" for American sports embracing tolerance.
"Leagues and teams are seeing this is an issue that can no longer be avoided, whether it's this season or next season. There are teams that want to take on that Branch Rickey moment," said Hudson, alluding to the former Brooklyn Dodgers general manager who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson. "And having an openly gay player is this generation's chance to do that."