A day after Missouri defensive end Michael Sam publicly announced that he is gay, Giants co-owners John Mara and Steve Tisch expressed support for Sam's decision to come out and said his sexual orientation should not be a factor in whether he is selected by the Giants or any other team in this year's NFL draft.
"Our sport, our game, is the ultimate meritocracy," Mara, the team's president and chief executive officer, said Monday. "You earn your way with your ability. Regardless of who you are, what your background is, and what your personal or sexual orientation is, if you can play, you can play."
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Mara added that Sam's "announcement will not affect his position on our draft board."
Tisch echoed Mara's comments."Michael Sam is a gifted athlete and a courageous man," he said. "I hope any NFL team would not hesitate to draft Michael if he is right for their team. Our game is the ultimate team game, and we often talk about how a team is a family. Regardless of where you are from, what your religious beliefs are, what your sexual orientation is, if you are good enough to be on the team, you are part of the family."
Through a spokesman, the Jets declined to comment.
Tisch credited Sam's college team for its handling of his decision to acknowledge his sexual orientation to Missouri teammates and coaches before the 2013 season.
"How the University of Missouri and its football program embraced and supported Michael is a tremendous blueprint for all of us," Tisch said. "But frankly, I think the lessons of our game also provide the same positive example."
The Tigers went 12-2 last season, and Sam, who played defensive end and might switch to linebacker in the NFL, wound up as the SEC's co-defensive player of the year.
Sam told ESPN and The New York Times in separate interviews that appeared Sunday that he decided in late January to come out. "I am an openly, proud gay man," Sam, 24, told ESPN. "I understand how big this is. It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be. I want to be a football player in the NFL."
Sam is projected as a midround pick in the draft. If he is not drafted, he almost certainly will be signed as a free agent. But the strong comments from the Giants' co-owners, as well as public support from the NFL, could bolster Sam's draft status.
Sam would be the league's first openly gay player, although a handful of former players, including Esera Tuaolo of the Vikings and Wade Davis of the Titans and Seahawks, acknowledged their sexual orientation after their NFL careers ended. Davis, who last played in 2003, believes the league is ready to welcome an openly gay player.
"There are so many players now who have openly gay family members, whether they're brothers, sisters, aunts or cousins," he said Monday during an interview on NFL Network. "I think that the world's just very different now, so the conversations that weren't being had when I was playing are being had now."
Former NFL quarterback Shaun King said whatever team Sam winds up with will welcome him. "I think people have an NFL locker room completely wrong," he said. "It's one of the most progressive workplaces in America. You accept and work with people who you dislike, people you disagree with all the time. It doesn't matter, as long as they can play. The bigger question is going to be how the fan base is going to accept Michael Sam, not the locker room."
King, who said he had gay teammates during his NFL career with the Buccaneers, Lions, Cardinals and Colts from 1999-2006, believes media scrutiny will be the biggest challenge facing Sam.
"Michael just wants to play football. It's going to be the media around him that will be a bigger factor," King said. "NFL teams are not going to have to make a decision on if their locker room will accept Michael Sam, because the locker room will accept him. They're going to have to make a decision about whether they want the media circus that comes with Michael Sam."
Cyd Zeigler, who detailed the back story of how Sam decided to come out on the website Zeigler co-founded -- Outsports.com -- said in an interview on Monday that he believes Sam is in a unique position to handle being the first openly gay NFL player.
Zeigler was with Sam the night before the interviews were made public.
"It didn't feel like it was burdensome to him," Zeigler said. "He told his parents, he told his [Missouri] teammates, he told his coaching staff. He knew many of the [NFL] scouts already knew. This is a big story for everybody but Michael Sam."
Zeigler said Sam's personal background has prepared him well for this moment.
"He comes from a broken home of eight children, raised by a single mom, and he had to watch as two of his siblings died of gunshot wounds," Zeigler said. "He was abused by his older brothers. He was built for this. He was built to be able to withstand whatever criticism he might get from the media, front office, teammates or fans, because he has the strength and the fortitude.