The Missouri football team hosts team-building activities, called “Crossover Dinners,” in which groups of 14 players from different positions go over to a coach’s house for dinner. Players stand up and introduce themselves to their teammates, sometimes just naming hometowns and family members — and sometimes, deeper issues.
This past August, senior defensive end Michael Sam stood up, looked 13 of his teammates and his position coach in the eyes, and told them he was gay. And then the next player introduced himself, as if nothing had ever happened.
Sam decided not to go public with his sexual orientation during the season, and his teammates remained silent and respectful, focusing instead on winning games in a sport that has never had an openly gay athlete.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said the program addresses differences between players. He credited addressing the issue, along with the team’s family atmosphere, in allowing Sam’s season to go so smoothly.
“If you’re part of our family, part of our football program, part of our team, you know, we’re going to be respectful of the differences amongst us and embrace and support each other,” Pinkel said. “That’s what we do here at Mizzou.”
Athletic Director Mike Alden said the program was comfortable with Sam and who he was. Although he said he didn’t know if the 2013 Tigers were a model team for this kind of rollout, the environment proved ideal.
“You hope that you have environments that people can be able to talk about issues and can disagree about things, but can be respectful of one another,” Alden said.
Many Missouri players supported Sam on Twitter after he came out in interviews with ESPN and The New York Times on Sunday. The only seemingly negative comment came from senior tight end Eric Waters, who said the same players now supporting Sam publically had made fun of him behind his back.
Pinkel said he knew players had differing views, but the issue boiled down to respect.
“We’ve got 127 players, OK, and everyone’s got ideas and thoughts and opinions on all kinds of social issues and situations,” Pinkel said. “With some of the players, they might not agree, they have their own opinion on it, maybe not favorably, possibly. But that’s OK. It’s not about what my opinion is on it either. It’s about being respectful to people.”
Struby Struble, coordinator at the MU LGBTQ Resource Center, said Sam’s teammates’ most impressive move was not outing him.
“That shows such respect, such knowledge, and that they worked together as a team and deferred to Michael about when you want to come out — ‘Do you want to come out now?’ — and that he chose, ‘No, I want it to be about football,’ and everybody respected that choice,” Struble said.
Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski said the team wasn’t concerned with outing Sam.
“I don’t know if we were really worried about it,” Kuligowski said. “We were part of the family, (we) trust each other, that’s how we handled it.”
Kuligowski said Missouri’s eccentric collection of players helped move the team past the issue quickly.