The St. Louis Rams have completed their preseason and now the wait begins for rookie defensive end Michael Sam as it does for hundreds of other players around the NFL. In that regard, Sam is just like the scores of rookies that are anxiously awaiting their fate as NFL teams make their final roster cutdown to the 53 men that will open the regular season.
But we all know that Sam is nothing like the other rookies that wait with him.
Only Sam will get national media attention for his pursuit of one of his team’s final roster spots. The others will go about their business, either making rosters, joining practice squads, or getting cut altogether, anonymously. Only Sam will get SportsCenter highlight segments devoted solely to him. Only Sam will get his stats in the fourth preseason game tweeted out to millions of people.
As the first openly gay NFL player, we all wondered how Sam would cope with being under the microscope and how his story would play out. Would there be any seminal moments or major controversies? How would fans, fellow players, and the league as a whole would respond? Would Sam break down barriers and represent a cultural transformation?
In reality, Sam’s tenure with the Rams has been shockingly normal. Perhaps that’s the greatest sign of all that we’re all ready to move forward. After wisely thinking better of doing a reality show with Oprah Winfrey, there’s been nothing surrounding Sam that would even resemble a distraction.
So the media has had to compensate for the lack of controversy by creating stories out of nowhere and becoming the distraction for him.
Since Sam was drafted by the Rams earlier this year, there have been two very major viral/mainstream stories about him. Both telling us two very different, but very important things about how the media has reacted to he first openly gay NFL player. And neither example really covered the media in glory.
The first was Tony Dungy’s comments about not wanting to draft Sam because of having to deal with all the “distractions.” As we’ve seen throughout the preseason, this myth is nothing more than traditional paranoid NFL coachspeak. However, the “distraction” boogeyman has been an NFL reality for years. Remember Tim Tebow?
On their own, the comments were rather meaningless. Misguided, but also meaningless. Political wonks would call it a nothingburger. But Dungy’s comments blew-up into a multi-day media firestorm. Why? It’s simple – the media found themselves the villain they needed to lash their outrage upon like lightning bolts reigning down from Mount Olympus. And if there wasn’t any real, blatant, outward controversy involving Sam, well… they were going to do their best to create one.
Countless outlets couldn’t wait to jump to calling Dungy a bigot, homophobe, and worse without understanding the full context of his comments. The story wouldn’t be as big and buzzy and controversy-filled without an antagonist, after all. The media needed something or someone to grab on to in order to deliver the controversy they expected and here was a man who checked all the boxes they were looking for.
Dungy had to explain that his comments had nothing to do with Sam’s sexuality and they were taken out of context. But in a way, he and the rabid media backlash combined to prove his point. Dungy, realizing his role in starting all of this, put it best in a statement clarifying his remarks:
I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.
The amazing element of all of this “distraction” was that it had nothing to do with Michael Sam himself. It was merely a battle between the worst of society (on both sides) as we continue to drive a wedge between one another. It played out entirely within the media. Sam’s only role in this was breathing and playing football. The only distraction was the debate about Sam being a distraction.
The second major controversy happened this past week when ESPN’s Josina Anderson filed a report on Sam’s showering habits in the locker room featuring anonymous quotes from teammates. Rams head coach Jeff Fisher delivered a damning condemnation of Anderson and ESPN, accusing the reporter of trying to manufacture a story where one didn’t exist:
“Obviously she came in, in all likelihood to see if there was gonna be a roster move at the 75 cutdown as it relates to Mike Sam. That didn’t happen. But she needed to do something, and it’s my understanding that she manufactured this story.
“She was out of line because she went and contacted several players on their personal time. Misled them with questions and then put this piece together.”
A few days later and the report still stands as one of the low points for ESPN this year. At no point has Sam’s interaction within the Rams locker room been a story. And yet, ESPN made it one. Here was ESPN explicitly speaking to the worst and most irrational stereotypes and fears regarding an openly gay NFL player for no reason at all. The story was literally invented out of thin air.
And the most troubling aspect of it is that ShowerGate (cue angry comments about the -Gate suffix) passed through every editorial level at ESPN without someone thinking twice about it. Jay Crawford asked the question that led to the report, the SportsCenter graphic was ready, everyone knew this nonsense about Michael Sam “fitting in” was coming. And nobody did a darn thing about it.
Prior to ESPN’s report, there was no distraction, no story, no… nothing coming from within the Rams locker room. There was no need to discuss Sam fitting in within the Rams because he was fitting in just fine.
Again, Sam’s only contribution to this story was breathing, playing football, and personal cleanliness.
Here we have two major controversies regarding Sam, and yet Sam wasn’t involved in either of them. If this proves anything, maybe it’s that the NFL is in fact ready for an openly gay player… but the media isn’t.
Perhaps it speaks to our wider need in the media and our society as a whole for sensationalism. We thrive on controversy, debate, and divisiveness in today’s America. And we will use Michael Sam in whichever way possible to fill those needs, as troubling a statement as that makes about ourselves. Because when the NFL’s first openly gay player is as normal a rookie as one can be, it’s up to us to fill in the gaps.