By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - National Football League hopeful Michael Sam on Monday drew public support from athletes, fans and politicians after publicly revealing he is gay and potentially becoming the league's first openly gay player.
The NFL and the University of Missouri, where Sam starred as a defensive lineman, rallied around him and even first lady Michelle Obama weighed in, calling him an "inspiration" for his courage on and off the field.
Many fans of Missouri football who have watched Sam on the field said the news was a non-issue.
"Michael's sexual orientation was widely known among the student population this past season and it was never a huge topic of conversation," said Abigail Tingle, a University of Missouri senior. "Nobody I knew seemed upset or looked down on him as a person or a player. We all felt proud of his athletic ability."
Sam is expected to be selected in the upcoming NFL draft, where stand-out college players can earn million-dollar salaries. That makes him poised to become the first openly gay player to compete in any of North America's four major professional sports leagues - football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
Some were less enthusiastic following Sunday's announcement, including former NFL head coach Herm Edwards, who said on ESPN that Sam may bring "baggage" to a locker room because of the media scrutiny placed on him and his team.
And eight NFL executives and coaches interviewed by Sports Illustrated - and who spoke to the publication on the condition of anonymity - said Sam's coming out could hurt his standing in the draft.
Sam decided to make the announcement after it became apparent about two weeks ago that NFL scouts were questioning his sexual orientation, said Los Angeles publicist Howard Bragman, whom Sam hired to help him handle the disclosure.
"This was getting out there, whether we announced it or not. Pro scouts knew it," Bragman told Reuters. "He's not looking at history. He is just looking to tell his story and play football."
Bragman said after making the announcement Sunday, Sam was trying to stay out of the spotlight and was spending his time at a practice camp preparing for the draft, scheduled for May 8-10 at New York's Radio City Music Hall.
Sam, a 6-foot, 2-inch (188-cm), 260-pound (118-kg) pass rusher who graduated in December, was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) after leading the SEC with 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss.
University spokesman Chad Moller said the attitude on and off campus toward Sam has been "overwhelmingly positive."
"I'm not naive to think there hasn't been negative comments out there in the social media world, but it's really been a proud moment" for the school, said Moller.
The NFL also issued a statement applauding Sam's "honesty and courage."
Despite the support, Sam understands the announcement may hurt his draft opportunities, Bragman said. The playing field is not yet level when it comes to gay competitors in professional sports, he said.
"I long for the day when this isn't a story. We have gays in Congress, gays in the military. But sports is still this Holy Grail," said Bragman. "People shoot people in the NFL, they do drugs, they beat their wives, they do dog fighting, and they call this a distraction."
Seventeen states and the federal government have moved toward expanding gay rights, including same-sex marriage, but U.S. sports have been seen as lagging in its acceptance of gay and lesbian athletes.
In April, veteran basketball player Jason Collins revealed he was gay in a Sports Illustrated article. The announcement was made after the regular season, and Collins, who was nearing the end of his career, was not subsequently signed for the 2013-2014 season. Collins was the first openly gay athlete in any of North America's four major professional sports leagues, though he never competed as an openly gay player.
"I can't wait to cheer for whatever lucky team that drafts (him)," tweeted Collins, calling Sam a great young man.
Gay rights organizations also greeted Sam's announcement with enthusiasm. Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD, a gay and lesbian media advocacy organization, said Sam had "rewritten the script for countless young athletes."
"With acceptance of (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) people rising across our coasts - in our schools, churches, and workplaces - it's clear that America is ready for an openly gay football star," she said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Marina Lopes in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)