It’s less than a week since Michael Sam was drafted in the 7th round of the NFL Draft by the St. Louis Rams and already fatigue is setting in amongst a significant section of sports fans. That’s to be understood for any story that reaches top billing over multiple news cycles.
But his story is one that’s complex, maybe more complex than any other athlete in history. And it’s a story that deserves the attention that it’s getting – not just from his history making perspective, but from the perspective of those of us following along.
It’s a story with many layers and many angles of importance. Each new wrinkle dealing with Michael Sam is more significant in a sports and societal sense than headlines about other celebritized athlete figures like Johnny Manziel or LeBron James.
The latest wrinkle is Sam’s reality show, sorry, documentary on OWN. Apparently the label makes a HUGE difference.
The fact that Sam will have a reality show, sorry, documentary, based on his NFL life is interesting enough. But ESPN’s Ed Werder tweeted details perhaps even more intriguing. Sam only told the Rams about the upcoming show after he was drafted.
Once again, there’s several avenues of digesting this story that I believe are all compelling to dive into.
The distraction angle has been so overplayed I’m not even sure I know what counts for a “distraction” anymore. This sentence could probably count as a “distraction” for all I know. Are we really to believe that a person living in the intense spotlight that Michael Sam occupies will be thrown off by a reality show that will likely be handled with kid gloves by his camp? As if that will be the turning point that makes him unable to function as a professional athlete? Please. It’s not like Michael Sam is going to be handling the post-production of it. Do you even know how many professional athletes have reality shows about them? If Eric Decker can do it, so can Michael Sam.
Nevertheless, it is fair to say that Sam’s stated desire to be seen as just a football player goes out the window once he signed on with Oprah. And, it’s also fair for observers to be more skeptical about his authenticity when he enters the same realm occupied by Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians.
Coaches and NFL teams crave control like it’s oxygen. For a player to step outside that carefully monitored zone and spring a surprise reality show upon a franchise is something that will cause many more issues inside the St. Louis Rams than it has on the outside. (And at least one unnamed player has already questioned the reality show to ESPN.) The Rams have every right to wonder now what other outside forces are pulling at Sam and how it will affect his career. It speaks volumes of where we are as a society that the first real point of order relating to the NFL’s first openly gay player has to deal with a reality show.
However, there are indeed positives here. Given Sam’s identity as the first openly gay player, any opportunity to tell his story to a wider audience is not to be treated lightly. The fact that he clearly wants to get his message out to inspire others is commendable. There may be a number of young athletes that will see Michael Sam’s story on OWN and be inspired to write their own stories in the coming years. That’s perhaps more valuable than any contribution on the football field.
The question at the moment is whether or not we can appreciate the complexity of Michael Sam’s story. Will people feel free to criticize or poke fun at Michael Sam for a reality show in the same way we did at Ryan Lochte? Or will people shy away from any kind of criticism of Sam (the reality star and the football player) whatsoever for fear of being labeled intolerant or worse? Can those on the other side of the coin appreciate him for his football abilities in spite of their personal views?
These are real questions we will have to ask ourselves as Sam’s career unfolds. Can we handle a story this complex without using blanket labels and stereotypes? Can we treat Michael Sam based on his quality as a football player while also paying respect to the history he’s making? I hope the answer is yes, but I’m not so sure.