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In My Opinion

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Sam is taking a huge step

Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

So Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam, the best defensive player in the SEC last year, has proclaimed that he is gay.

So what?

At least that is what I hope will be the reaction by the NFL, Sam's future employer. Sam has taken a huge step for gay athletes by making this announcement prior to the 2014 NFL draft. He will be eligible for that draft and is considered a likely mid- to late-round pick.

Some general manager should shrug his shoulders and just pick Sam, because being gay has no effect on his ability to play football.

I would be happy if the team that chooses him is the Panthers. Some team is going to hire Sam because he can flat-out play – Sam (6-foot-2, 260 pounds) will likely be turned into a linebacker in the NFL – but then will have the spotlight shone upon it as well as Sam tries to make the team.

That team will need some backbone and some courage to do this. Certainly not as much courage as Sam has had to come out as gay in this testosterone-fueled sport, but enough to realize that every move it makes with Sam will be put under a microscope.

This was supposed to have already happened in the NBA, but it hasn’t. No NBA team has taken a chance on Jason Collins, who announced last April that he was gay in a first-person Sports Illustrated story. Collins was a free agent at the time and had hoped to be picked up by an NBA team this fall after he came out. Didn't happen.

But Collins was also nearing the end of his career – he is now 35. NBA teams would tell you this was a basketball decision not to sign him and nothing else.

For Sam, the situation is far different. He is at the beginning of his career, not the end. He had 11.5 sacks last season in college. He was the SEC’s defensive player of the year, an All-American and Missouri’s MVP.

Sam told his teammates at Missouri he was gay before this past season ever began. They supported him and kept his secret. He ended up having a stellar season just like his team did.

Sam won't be the first gay NFL player ever. From a statistical standpoint, there have likely been dozens of them by now.

But he will be the first openly gay player in this situation. He’s about to have a whole series of job interviews with NFL teams in February at the scouting combine. Everyone already knows this about him.

Sam said he is proud to tell the world his story.

We should be proud, too, that we live in a country where he is free to tell it.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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