If one of the motivations for gay athletes to ‘come out’ is to make it easier for others to follow in their footsteps, it seems to be working.
Last month, former German International footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger became one of the few male players to reveal that he was a homosexual.
This was followed in the last 48 hours by an American footballer who looks set to become the NFL’s first openly gay player, and the captain of the England women’s football team.
The declarations come at a time when gay rights and sport have collided at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, where Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law has received much attention, and criticism.
Michael Sam, a 1.8-metre, 115kg defensive star from the University of Missouri, came out in an interview with EPSN on Sunday night.
He could soon become the first active openly gay player in any of North America’s four biggest pro sports leagues, though a few players have come out after their playing days ended.
Sam is projected to be picked somewhere in the middle of the National Football League draft in May, when former college players are selected by pro teams.
“Hopefully it will be the same like my locker room,” he told ESPN. “It’s a workplace.”
The NFL said in statement that it admired Michael Sam’s honesty and courage. “Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL. We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014.”
Offensive lineman Frank Garcia, who played nine seasons (1995-2003) in the NFL with the Panthers, Rams and Cardinals, said Sam could face “huge challenges” in the league.
“I think a lot of guys in the NFL are going to say they will accept it, but there are a lot of guys who won’t,” Garcia said.
“The reality is Michael Sam is going to open himself up to a lot of criticism and a lot of challenges. Those are challenges most gay people have to go through, but when you are dealing with alpha males and some meatheads in an NFL locker room it’s amplified.”
In England, the captain of the women’s football team, Casey Stoney, has for the first time spoken publicly about being gay.
Stoney, 31, told the BBC on Monday she had taken the decision to come out after the positive reaction to British Olympic diver Tom Daley’s announcement that he is in a relationship with a man.
Stoney, who plays for Arsenal and has won 116 caps for England, said she was also happy to make her sexuality public because she was in a “loving relationship”.
“I was living a lie,” she said. “I’ve never hidden it within football circles because it is accepted. But to the outside world, I’ve never spoken about my sexuality.
“I feel it’s really important for me to speak out as a gay player because there are so many people struggling who are gay, and you hear about people taking their own lives because they are homosexual. That should never happen.
“How can I expect other people to speak about themselves if I’m not willing to do that myself?”
Stoney said the decision had taken “a long while to get to” but that “a huge weight” had been lifted from her shoulders.
Stoney, who plays in the semi-professional Women’s Super League, said homosexuality was more accepted in the women’s game than the men’s. She estimated there are “maybe two or three” gay players in some teams.
Stoney said she would not be attending the men’s football World Cup in Russia in 2018 unless there is a change in attitudes. “I won’t be going to Russia or Qatar to watch a World Cup because I wouldn’t be accepted there,” she said.
“I think it’s incredible that these countries get World Cups and Olympics when they don’t accept everybody to go there and be part of it.
“There will be (Olympic) athletes competing out (in Sochi) who are gay. I can’t imagine how frightened they must feel going out there and competing.”
There has never been an openly gay player in the AFL, although NRL star Ian Roberts came out in 1995.