Michael Sam’s struggle in coming out only validates his success

Updated: 2014-02-11T05:43:27Z


The Kansas City Star

— In the spirit of the moment Monday, Mizzou’s iconic Rock M at the north end of Faurot Field was embellished in the snow to spell the word “SAM.”

The salute was to MU senior defensive end Michael Sam, who, in the midst of being evaluated by the NFL before the draft, announced Sunday that he is gay.

From this epicenter, Sam’s name suddenly is reverberating nationally in about any forum imaginable:

Via the highest office in the land, where President Barack Obama’s Twitter account posted encouragement and first lady Michelle Obama personally tweeted, “You’re an inspiration to all of us, @MikeSamFootball. We couldn't be prouder of your courage both on and off the field.”

And from about the lowest place in the land, the Westboro Baptist Church, whose announced plans to picket MU on Saturday prompted “#standwithsam,” a movement that by early Monday evening on Facebook had registered 3,192 commitments to counter with a human wall of silent protest.

MU coach Gary Pinkel allowed that one of his pet words, “mammoth,” didn’t do this development justice and added, “This isn’t just about Mizzou (or) one player. … This is going to have a profound effect, I think, on sport, certainly initially, and hopefully it will trickle down to everyone.”

But as much as this represents a moment of triumph for MU and Sam and, really, anyone who believes in live and let live, there is a key element that’s being overlooked in the immediate aftermath.

This was a harder-earned victory than anyone wants to focus on right now, and that’s understandable, but it neglects a more meaningful truth: Having a player come out to teammates for the first known time in major-college football history wasn’t simple for anyone.

There were, in fact, some awkward and difficult times, times of disagreement and arguments and tension and confusion among players and maybe even stronger conflicts than that before all this became harmonious.

Several sources confirmed as much, but only in generalities. A tweet from senior Tiger tight end Eric Waters chastising teammates spoke to some unease behind the scenes.

“Half of y’all posting these pics saying how proud you are. But most of y’all was the ones talkin (trash) behind his back in the locker room.”

Waters was lambasted by some for that, but he lent something substantial to the discussion with his perception of the truth. Contending with some struggle was the real triumph here. And the idea that it wasn’t seamless doesn’t diminish this.

It fact, it actually enhances the meaning of what MU and Sam achieved last season: The Tigers went 12-2, won the Southeastern Conference East and Sam was named SEC defensive player of the year.

Because ideas and values and philosophies collided at first … then coalesced.

No one wanted to elaborate about that on Monday, but Pinkel, defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski and assistant athlete director for athletic performance Pat Ivey each found a way to convey that there had been challenges to overcome.

Each of those moments, Ivey said, was something to grow by.

And there were a lot of moving parts along the way.

“You’ve got 127 players, OK, and everybody’s got ideas and thoughts and opinions (on) all kinds of social issues. … Some of the players would have their own opinion on it (and) maybe not favor it, possibly, but that’s OK,” Pinkel said.

What matters, he said repeatedly, is simply respecting the differences. Or as he told the team: “ ‘We’re going to unite, and we’re going to work together, and by the way, I’ve got your back because you’re going to have my back if something happens in my situation.’ 

In coaching, Kuligowski said, there are “a million rough spots.” But he added, “It was like a splash in the pond. The ripples eventually go away and you’re back to business.”

With no precedent, they worked through it to provide what some now will look to as a blueprint.

The success of the season in itself was a demonstration of that, and it’s one that in some measure debunks the notion that Sam’s presence in an NFL locker room need be the cause for distraction or disruption that some suggest it inherently would be.

“I’d like to think it wouldn’t (be a factor with the NFL),” said Pinkel, though acknowledging, “This is uncharted territory. … Time will tell where he goes.”

Instead, it will be about the culture having the leadership and means to make it the right environment.

Mizzou managed to do that, in part by ultimately making Sam feel supported and embraced whatever the complications were along the way.

Significant in that: MU empowered him with the choice of how and when, and if, to tell his story.

“One hundred percent his choice, whatever he decided, we were going to do,” Pinkel said. “That’s fact, and anybody who says anything different hasn’t done their research (or) they’re not telling the truth.”

But the most important thing here may be this: Nothing came easily, and the struggle only validated the success.

That’s what Missouri quarterback James Franklin meant, he confirmed by phone Monday, in a tweet he posted that was emblematic of the clashing worlds that had to come together to create this remarkable outcome.

“I love and accept Mike as a person and he knows that!” he wrote. “Everyone sins; God hates sin, and I follow God!”

That’s not all stuff that always goes together. And there was no embellishment to that, but a greater truth.

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4366 or send email to Follow him at

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