NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith called anonymous critics of Michael Sam as "gutless" for indicating his draft stock will drop by announcing that he is gay.
Sam, an All-America defensive end at Missouri, announced he is gay during interviews Sunday with the New York Times and with ESPN's "Outside The Lines." Sam would become the first openly gay player in NFL history assuming he is drafted.
Sports Illustrated and themmqb.com, citing multiple league general managers, reported that Sam's projected draft stock would drop significantly because of his announcement.
"When you contrast a group of anonymous GMs against a 24-year-old college player, it seems like only one of them had the guts to put his name behind his message," Smith told CSN Washington on Monday. "So my first reaction has nothing to do with Michael Sam. My reaction is to call those GMs for what they are -- they're gutless.
"If a young man has the courage to stand up and put his name and his face to talk about what he thinks is important, I would expect that a grown man can do exactly the same thing. But apparently they can't."
Smith hopes NFL teams would look at Sam's ability on the field and not pass over him because of his sexual orientation.
"All I can hope is that that's not the case," Smith said. "This is a rare, select group of athletes who can perform and play at the highest of levels. And I think that any team or general manager that would be short-sighted enough to not have one of the best players on their team because of some personal bias is not only short-changing the teammates on that team but giving into the dark, horrible prejudices that we all expect that people no longer have.
"I'm not Pollyanna about it, certainly, but my hope would be that in the same way that every player is graded by what he can accomplish on the field, that would be exactly the same standard that you'd want to apply to every player."
Smith said the NFLPA would step in if necessary.
"With both feet," Smith said. "This isn't a union that has had a tough time stepping in with two feet to protect the interest of our players. If there ever came a time when we felt that there was a need to do something for this player or any player in a similar situation, the league wouldn't be surprised to see a letter from me coming across their desk."
Sam, 24, came out to his Tigers teammates in August, and went on to become the co-defensive player of the year in the SEC after registering 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss.
Initial reaction that poured in from NFL circles was overwhelmingly supportive. Several players took to Twitter to support his decision to come out.
In a statement, the NFL said: "We admire 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."
Still, the debate will continue about whether Sam's stock for the upcoming NFL Draft in May will be impacted, and about how well he will be received in an NFL locker room.
Sam is currently the No. 110-rated prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, projected to be a third- or fourth-round draft pick.
"I understand how big this is," Sam told ESPN. "It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be, and I want to be a football player in the NFL."