All Things Michael Sam
Like most, I’ve been taking in the events of the drama that is Michael Sam this week. From the ESPN broadcast of his draft selection in the late 7th round by the St. Louis Rams and his subsequent celebration with his partner (kiss and cake), to his nationally televised press conference with the Rams alongside head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Les Snead, to the announcement that Oprah Winfrey’s network OWN is going to produce a docu-series on Sam starting this summer (without the Rams having any prior knowledge of it before he was drafted). Oh you can throw in the local morning show The Broadcast where the four female hosts got into such a heated debate regarding Sam that one of them walked off the set. There’s been a lot of Michael Sam going around.
In case you’ve been under a rock for the last little while – because this has taken on a life of its own and is no longer just a sports story – Michael Sam is the former University of Missouri linebacker and SEC co-defensive player of the year who jumped to the forefront of all things media last February when he announced that he was gay. And now that Sam has become the first “openly gay” man to be drafted into the NFL, I fear the circus is just beginning. And three rings won’t be nearly enough to contain it.
To his credit, Michael Sam seems like a truly likeable guy and has presented himself well in every situation I’ve seen him in. By all accounts he was beloved by his Mizzou teammates who all knew he was gay during the entire season and kept his secret in house at his request – a truly remarkable feat when you think about it. He’s polite, well-spoken and ever since he “came out” has insisted that football is what he is all about, and that he just wants a chance to prove himself on the field. “I’m already focused on playing and trying to make the team,” Sam said immediately following the draft. “But I understand that right now you guys want to make a big deal out of it. When this is over, I can start doing that as fast as possible.” The words were the correct ones to utter – I’m just not so sure I believe him any more.
Whether he is getting advice from his agent, his family, his partner or his friends, or making decisions on his own, he is not doing himself any favors in the dog-eat-dog world of the NFL by encouraging the spotlight. Film crews from ESPN just don’t regularly park it in the home of the 294th player drafted, and perhaps he should have politely declined ESPN’s offer. And love it or hate it, the affection he and his partner displayed for each other on national TV wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. The kiss and cake play created a media s**t-storm, both social and mainstream, as everyone seemed to have an opinion, some favorable, others not so much (understatement). But one thing is for sure, Michael Sam is trending.
“I am determined,” Sam said after signing his agreement with OWN, “And if seeing my story helps somebody else accept who they are and to go for their dreams too, that’s great.” So perhaps Sam sees this as an opportunity to make a statement for the gay population as a spokesperson, role model and advocate, and if that’s his motivation more power to him. But whatever the realty behind the decisions he’s making, it is clearly not “all about football” any longer.
I have no idea what size of check OWN presented him, but since the year 2000, less than half of the players picked in the 7th round have been on NFL rosters in week one of the regular season. Seventh-round picks aren’t guaranteed a spot on the roster and their signing bonuses are usually only in the mid five-figures range, so they are easily released without a significant financial hit to their teams. So this “docu-series” could also be about money and financial security, and again I can’t blame him if that’s the reason he agreed to do it. But if his true dream is to make the Rams and be part of a team, the singular “look at me” approach doesn’t seem to be the wisest road to take (and not including the Rams or the NFL in his decision making seems misguided at best). One unnamed Rams player told ESPN’s Josina Anderson, “It’s an interesting case that he gets to work with Oprah and have his own show, but I think it does raise eyebrows and it may be somewhat of a distraction, but this is our first time dealing with something like this, so we’ll have to wait and see how it plays out and how people react.
Part of me thinks all of this smacks of young man who is trying to be everything to everyone, an impossibility, and I feel for the enormous sense of responsibility he is no doubt feeling. But I’ve been around professional athletes for more than 20 years now, in and out of locker rooms, and I can promise you not everyone will be comfortable with Sam in the locker room and on the field, at least not at the beginning, no matter what their public and politically correct response might be. Making himself seem more important than the team or his teammates, at least in the eyes of the general public and the Rams, certainly is not going to help the situation. I’ve heard enough comments from athletes already regarding just “the kiss” to know not everyone is all-accepting, whether its from strict religious beliefs, fear of the unknown or just plain ignorance. Sam has a difficult road ahead of him just trying to be accepted and make the team, and the more the spotlight is on him the harder it will be.
Rookies, and especially 7th round picks, don’t purposely draw attention to themselves in the NFL, or professional sports in general. Period. If Johnny Manziel, a first round pick and the king of “look at me” signed on to do a realty show (I’d watch it I admit) you’d probably find him duct taped to a goal post in nothing but his tighty whities by the Cleveland Browns vets. But that can’t happen with Sam. Because he’s gay. He’s playing by a different and new set of rules, and no one knows exactly how this is going to play out for him or his teammates. It won’t be easy for Sam, a projected situational only pass-rushing specialist, to make a team that’s led the league in sacks the last two years – if that’s his primary and singular focus. If it’s only a secondary objective I sure hope the TV show is a hit for him.