Michael Sam, former football player and LGBTQ activist, spoke at McLeod Hall Thursday night to close the Excellence Through Diversity Distinguished Learning Series hosted by the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Sam was the year’s final speaker, after hearing from activists including Cornel West, Angela Davis and many others throughout the previous year.
Sam told the audience the story of finding out he was drafted for the NFL. He had been passed for six rounds in the draft before getting a call from a team. He was one of the last players to be drafted. Sam described how he celebrated after the phone call from the St. Louis Rams and opened up about how the media reacted to his on-screen kiss with his boyfriend, and how it affected him personally.
“At the end [of the call] I say thank you, I hang up the phone and the first person I saw was [my boyfriend] Vito [Cammisano], and we kiss, and then I start celebrating.” Sam said, “And the next day, I didn’t see, ‘Michael Sam makes history, first LGBT draft in the NFL.’ What I see is, ‘Michael Sam kisses his boyfriend.’”
Sam’s speech was not focused on LGBTQ activism, but instead more generally about love.
“When you leave,” Sam said, “I want you to tell somebody —I don’t care if it’s your mom, dad, sister, girlfriend, boyfriend, fish, dog, cat. Tell that person that you love them.”
Sam began his speech by opening up about his childhood and how those experiences helped to shape him.
“I, like many other middle-class black Americans, I didn’t have the best upbringing … and I was fortunate,” Sam said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “I was in high school, and I didn’t think I was going to go to college. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, which was to go make money, make enough money to get the hell out of my hometown … but I was blessed with athletic ability, and I earned myself a scholarship.”
After the deaths of his two oldest siblings, two of Sam’s older brothers — Joshua and Christian — took over the house and began dealing drugs. Sam said he was traumatized by the event, and still is.
“When I see evil I see two people, I see Joshua and Christian,” Sam said during the speech. “They are evil people.”
At times, Sam spoke about his personal life, drawing laughs from the crowd. However, Sam said he never considered becoming public speaker, even despite his ongoing activism.
“I never considered it,” Sam said. “I just have a good speaking voice. I was asked, I gave it a try — I’m not a shy guy — and the first time I tried it, people loved it.”
Early in his activist career, Sam said that it was difficult for him to address some of the personal issues he had been dealing with internally for years.
“I didn’t actually finish that first tour,” Sam said. “I kind of had to stop in-between and jump to Q&A, it was too hard for me … it’s a healing process for me, to speak about this … about hidden traumas I’ve experienced.”
Thomas Pilnik, program coordinator for the Office of Diversity and Engagement, was pleased with the overall success of the Learning Series’ second year. In an interview with The Cavalier Daily, Pilnik said the Office of Diversity and Engagement shares responsibility for the series’ success.
“We’re the organizers, we’re the planners, but we’re sponsored by Facilities Management, the Provost, the School of Nursing, the Comm School, the College, Curry, every School,” Pilnik said. “So we’re bridging gaps in areas of the University that are often left untouched and untapped.”
Sam said he fits in with the program’s theme of excellence through diversity.
“Diversity?” Sam said. “I’m about as diverse as they could get.”