TAMPA, Fla. — Four men who played their college football in the Palmetto State threw their full support behind Michael Sam and his decision to make his sexual orientation public in media interviews this weekend.
I think that he is very brave, former Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins said. I cant judge him. I commend him on coming out. That definitely was a man move. A lot of people wouldnt do that.
Former South Carolina Gamecocks Victor Hampton, Bruce Ellington and Kelcy Quarles similarly lauded Sam, a former Missouri football player. He will be the first openly gay player in the NFL if he makes a team this fall, and he is expected to be drafted between the fourth and seventh rounds in May.
I am happy for him, Hampton said. Its probably a load off his shoulders. He can walk around and be proud of himself. I hope everybody accepts him whatever team he goes to.
If thats you, thats you, Ellington said. You cant judge a person because hes gay. He was one of the best D-ends in the league. I saw him play, I was like, Hes a great player. Im proud of him and happy for him.
Sam is the reigning SEC defensive player of the year after registering 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles-for-loss for the SEC East champion Tigers. Like most of the sports-watching public, Ellington, Hampton, Quarles and Watkins learned about his sexual orientation on Sunday through interviews with ESPN, the New York Times and Outsports.com. They are preparing for the NFL Combine and Draft at Performance Compound in Tampa, Fla.
There are a lot of people in this world who have that hidden trend, and a lot of people are keeping it in and they are not happy, Watkins said. Thats when the suicide rate and all goes up.
Sam had five tackles, including a sack, during a 27-24 South Carolina win against Missouri on Oct. 26.
We didnt know he was gay. All we could say was, (Shoot) that guy is good, Hampton said. All his (teammates) were chest bumping him, smacking him. If he made a play, nobody would be like, Oh, I aint going to touch him. They were treating him like he was a regular guy. I applaud his teammates.
Sam said he told his teammates he is gay in August. Watkins would expect a teammate to be open about his sexuality, he said.
I am better off knowing that he is rather than him hiding it from the whole team and us not knowing, he said. If you are a part of us and we are brothers, I feel like you should let us know.
Despite their support of Sams announcement, none of the players predicted the locker room transition will go completely smoothly.
Im sure its tough, being in a football locker room not knowing how they are going to perceive you, Hampton said. Lets face it, some guys are so naïve that when they find out a guy is gay, they are not dealing with it.
Some players will feel like they have to remain clothed or covered with a towel around Sam or be uncomfortable around him in the locker room, Hampton predicted.
Its going to take some people to grow up and get out of that mindset when he does get on a team because there are going to be some guys on a team who are uncomfortable with it, lets be honest about it, Hampton said. Thats when the leaders have to step in.
The word punk is used a lot in locker rooms in reference to homosexual men, Watkins said.
You definitely have to watch the things you say around him now, what words you use, Watkins said, but overall I think he was brave for coming out.
Ellington, Hampton and Quarles have never knowingly played with a homosexual teammate, they said, and Ellington was unsure how it might affect behavior in a team environment.
There are a lot of jokes that are said in the locker room, he said. He knew about it. Hes been through it. I think hell be able to handle it. If I am in the locker room with him, I am going to treat him the same as everybody else.
If Sam, or any player, helps a team win, little attention should be paid to anything else, said Quarles, adding he would have no problem being Sams teammate.
Im here to play football, Quarles said. We might not fool with each other outside of football because we have our own separate lives but if were playing football and we are focused on getting championships, I dont care what you are. We are going to get a championship. Im not worried about what you do off the field.