The selling — and mishandling — of Michael Sam

The feel-good story of Michael Sam lost some of its sheen last week when Oprah Winfrey announced the production of a “docu-series” on her OWN cable outlet that would chronicle the story of the openly gay St. Louis Rams draftee as he attempts to make a National Football League roster.

samjerseyThe carefully planned disclosure by the University of Missouri All-American defensive end and his handlers in February was greeted with effusion by the mainstream media, as if Sam were Lindbergh landing in Paris.

By contrast, the Winfrey project was quickly shelved on Friday, following a wave of media commentators lashing out at what one called the “commodification” of a seventh-round pick who nearly slipped from the draft boards altogether, and who faces a very tall order in being in uniform to start the 2014 season.

Jason Whitlock led the skeptical cavalcade, saying Sam “is being used . . . by everyone,” and that merely being a symbol for gay rights activists to tout means little if he can’t stay in the game:

Sam has to play in the NFL to be an effective role model and pioneer. He has to fit into a locker room environment before he can transform that environment.

He is simply not a good enough football player to travel with Oprah’s circus and the NFL’s. He needs to choose one. He’s a seventh-round draft pick who ran a 4.91-second 40-yard dash at the combine. He’s a special-teams player.

More of the same from Gregg Doyel, Vahe Gregorian and Joe Strauss.

So much for that draft day kiss between Sam and his boyfriend that some columnists were only too happy to throw at a middle America presumably uncomfortable at seeing such a public display.

(As far as I’m concerned, a kiss is just a kiss but the cake schmear was a bit over the top. Save it for the wedding, fellas.)

Voices ranging from the bombastic Whitlock to the more measured Gregorian are now questioning how Michael Sam became the most famous name in the draft not named Johnny Football.

As Gregorian writes:

. . . something has rung inauthentic from the start about the handling of Sam, and that vibe of contrivance detracts from this important matter as much or more than it helps it.

But the media contingent couldn’t be bothered with noticing that very first twitch of orchestration. They didn’t have to do much digging to figure it out, as it was served up to them on a platter by someone closely involved in Sam’s coming-out.

Cyd Zeigler of the gay sports website Outsports was part of the inner circle advising Sam as he prepared to go public, and penned a “behind the scenes” piece shortly after the announcement.

Zeigler describes in great detail how the deal went down, from the timing of the disclosure, to which outlets would get preferential treatment, to a celebratory dinner at the Los Angeles home of a Sam publicist whose guests included Dave Kopay, who blew the lid on the NFL closet in the 1970s.

All this for a 24-year-old African-American, an undersized defensive lineman from a small town in Texas, and who was projected at no better than the middle of the draft even before he came out.

Christopher Gasper of the Boston Globe defended the reality show plans, pointing to a similar efforts by other NFL players — though most are or were established stars:

“Sam’s show could have been a piece of history, now it’s an opportunity fumbled away by fear.”

I think that really misses the mark. It’s not fear, but rather a concern that Sam’s novel story is trumping his full attention to the game, his new employer and teammates. He’s an athlete in perhaps the most collective-minded, hierarchical sport of all.

According to Zeigler, Bragman made it clear that from the outset of Sam’s initial disclosure, “part of the strategy is to announce it once and let Michael focus on his football.”

But then again, how could he? The media obsession on the subject — which had been building up for months, especially after NBA journeyman Jason Collins’ admission – went even deeper into overdrive. A Michael Sam website was created, with a “store” selling his newly designated Rams jersey No. 96 to go with the “Stand With Sam” shirts designed in particular to appeal to isolated gay youth.

Sam did numerous interviews at the NFL combine, where his performance for the scouts was lackluster. Football considerations were cast aside for a heartwarming, history-making narrative.

Before the draft, and very discreetly, the reality show project was arranged, with Bragman and Sam’s agents to serve as producers. The NFL front office was notified, but the Rams did not know until last Sunday, according to Strauss, who reported that Rams players expressed their displeasure.

This is a franchise that appears committed to welcoming Sam in its ranks. Strauss writes that openly gay ex-NFL player Wade Davis was summoned last week by Rams head coach Jeff Fisher to help prepare players and the organization for what is to come.

But the overreach by Michael Sam’s entourage may have only added to the player’s already sizable burden, and the long odds he faces in surviving the brutal world of pre-season training camp.

As Deron Snyder of The Washington Times wrote, Sam “is caught between a pair of dynamic forces pulling him in opposite directions.”

Collision Low Crossers

After the publication last fall of “Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football,” author Nicholas Dawidoff speculated about the arrival of an openly gay NFL player, and described a paradoxical scenario that Sam’s handlers may want to keep in mind:

I mean, it’s a homophobic culture. There’s no getting around it. But what I also felt is that football’s kind of a curious thing. On the one hand, it’s very conservative and slow to evolve. But on the other hand, it’s incredibly embracing. Racially, it felt probably like the most progressive culture I’ve ever been in, just the way people talked about race. And Rex Ryan, one of the reasons he’s such an excellent football coach is because he’s so accepting of difference.

And I just think that in football, people are really, really wary of anything that will sort of — it’s the same thing that people used to be wary of in the military — anything that will interfere with group cohesion and group purpose. But I also think that so many of the people in football are — how can I put this? — really are team people, they really are embracing of other people. So it’s this weird sort of contradiction between an aversion to difference in a loving, embracing community. And what I think is that football culture is slow to evolve in some ways. When it does evolve, it really evolves. And I think that — of course, there have been gay football players, we know this — but I think that very soon there will be gay football players. And what’s going to happen is that they’re gonna be accepted, and just as the eccentricities of everybody, down to my purple bandana, gets you teased, their predilections will get them teased. And you have to take it. And once you do, you become part of the group, and all the teammates will be standing there at his wedding.

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