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University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam made history on Sunday when he announced that he is openly gay, and he has since been credited across the sporting world for opening doors for future players.
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The positive reaction that the first-team All-American defensive lineman got from teammates, coaches, football competitors and athletes in almost every major sport came as no surprise to Bill Simmons, Grantland editor-in-chief and contributor for ESPN’s NBA Countdown.
“It is baby steps — it is the evolution of the last five years or so that has paved the way to this moment,” he tells The Hollywood Reporter in an interview. “I think [publicly gay NBA player] Jason Collins really helped, and even the way people handled the Sochi Olympics and Russia’s attitude toward gays,” he adds.
Rather than Sam’s sexuality sparking harassment in the locker room when he joins the NFL this year, Simmons says: “At this point, I would be much more surprised if anyone was a jerk to Michael Sam than I would be if they were supportive. It would be career suicide for them to come out against him, even if they felt that way. It is a much more tolerant society in 2014, and this guy is going to be looked at as an ambassador and somebody with a lot of guts.”
Sam has stated that he came out before the NFL draft, which takes place in May, because he was “afraid it would leak out without me actually owning my truth,” and Simmons credits him and Hollywood PR veteran Howard Bragman for how they handled it the situation.
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“It seems that he has put a lot of thought into the decision and made it for really smart reasons, and it sounds like he really thought seriously about doing it before the season begins [in September],” he says. “I think the eventual goal is three or four years from now, no one is going to give a crap about any of this stuff. It kind of doesn’t really matter now — it does and it doesn’t … People’s general attitudes are that it’s not that big of a factor, which is a great place for [society] to be. He does it, then two other guys do it, then three other guys come out. Once the numbers start adding up, I feel like it’s not going to be a big deal anymore.”
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When it comes to where the 24-year-old defensive player of the year for the Southeastern Conference lands professionally — that is a gamble whatever your sexuality.
“The bottom line is that with the NFL draft, once you get past the second round, you are taking a chance on anybody,” says Simmons. Even three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t taken until the sixth round of the 2000 draft. “Teams can either talk themselves out of him or talk themselves into him for reasons that have nothing to do with what he announced. But it is definitely going to be the most interesting post-first round NFL draft ever!”
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He adds, “Anyone who follows football is going to be fascinated about what round he goes. It is a crap shoot. He is a 6’2″, 260-pound defensive end, which is pretty small for that position, but he is an over achiever, played on a good team, had a great year, and is one of their most valuable players — he is the kind of guy who tends to succeed in the NFL. I am rooting for him.”
The 2014 NFL Draft begins on May 8 at 5 p.m. PT, and continues through May 10.
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