Jackie Robinson achieved historical significance when he became a first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Now Michael Sam, 24, a former Missouri Tigers defensive end and now professional football candidate, is poised to do the same if he is selected in the National Football League’s May draft as the organization’s first openly gay player.

Sam’s coming out occurred in two steps. He told his college teammates he was gay at a preseason team-building exercise in August. Their approval and support appear to have helped make his public announcement possible. That came Feb. 9 during an interview on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines.” As The New York Times reported, that decision puts him into “uncharted areas of the sports landscape. He is making his public declaration before he is drafted, to the potential detriment to his professional career.”

Indeed, the NFL, along with other professional sports leagues, has become a battleground for sexual rights. Recently, Chris Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings and January Truthdigger of the Week, announced that he believes he was fired because of his vocal support for same-sex marriage. And former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo took heat from a Maryland politician for backing gay rights in a television ad as a member of the league.

The NFL has decided to officially support players like Sam. In a statement the night of his announcement, the league, which is the largest major sports organization in the United States, said: “We admire Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the N.F.L. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”

Though American states are quickly ratifying laws allowing same-sex marriage, Sam could believe that public statements do not always translate into actual commitments. “I’m not naive,” Sam said, according to The New York Times. “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 [scouting showcase] and play in the N.F.L.”

In addition to possessing a sexual preference that could make him an outcast in recent American society, Sam has grown up with a host of challenges. The seventh of eight children, three of his siblings have been killed or went missing, and two of his brothers are in prison. He was brought up mostly by his mother, at one point living in her car. Some of his childhood years were spent with another family. He says all of them have supported his coming out.

Being a gay public figure, even in the strongholds of anti-gay feeling, appears to be getting easier in America. But if that is so, it is partly because of the openness of people like Michael Sam. For being another nail in the coffin of sexual hate in our age, we honor Michael Sam as our Truthdigger of the Week and wish him success in the 2014 draft.

Listen to a discussion about Sam’s coming out on Truthdig radio.

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