By Edith Honan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Michael Sam, a star college football player who is potentially a top prospect in the National Football League's upcoming draft, came out as gay in a video posted on the New York Times website on Sunday, and could become the NFL's first openly gay player.
"I'm Michael Sam. I'm a football player and I'm gay," Sam, a defensive lineman, said in the video. "I just want to own my truth before anyone breaks a story about me."
Even as 17 states and the federal government have moved toward expanding gay rights, including same-sex marriage, U.S. sports have been seen as lagging in its acceptance of gay and lesbian athletes.
Gay rights organizations greeted Sam's announcement with enthusiasm. Sarah Kate Ellis, the president of GLAAD, a 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.
The NFL also released a statement on Sunday in support of Sam.
"We admire Michael Sam's honesty and courage. Michael is a football player. Any player with ability and determination can succeed in the NFL," the league said in a statement on its website. "We look forward to welcoming and supporting Michael Sam in 2014."
Sam was a defensive lineman for the University of Missouri's Mizzou Tigers until he graduated in December.
Sam, a 6-foot, 2-inch (188-cm), 260-pound (118-kg) pass rusher, 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, and was projected to be mid-round pick in the upcoming seven-round NFL draft.
The draft will be held May 8 to 10 at New York's Radio City Music Hall.
Sam could not immediately be reached for comment.
In the Times video, Sam said that when he first spoke with his teammates about his sexuality last August, they rallied around him and supported him.
"Is this a huge deal? I understand that it is. But my purpose and focus right now is playing football," he said. "I probably may be the first but I won't be the last. And I think only good things is gonna come from this."
Brian Ellner, a gay-rights activist and board member of the group Athlete Ally, said, "We expect the leadership at NFL teams around the country, and the league itself, to wholeheartedly embrace the change that is not only sweeping our nation in the form of law, but also defining our playing fields and culture.
"How Michael Sam is received on the professional level will go a long way in defining the NFL's legacy," Ellner said.
Last 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.
Sam, should he be drafted as expected and make an NFL roster in the 2014 season, would become the first openly gay player to compete in any of North America's four major professional sports leagues - football, baseball, basketball and hockey.
(Additional reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Eric Walsh)