Sports Media Musings: NFL Prospect Michael Sam Announces He Is Gay; The Media Debates How The Media Will Treat The Story

Today: In which we discuss Michael Sam’s decision to step forth as the first openly gay NFL prospect. Before doing so, let’s pass along some prerequisite reads from much smarter writers than myself.

Cyd Zeigler, of Out Sports, has the exclusive behind-the-scenes story of how Sam’s PR team chose to come out to the public with the news, including the thought process behind which outlets to confide in, etc. The piece deep dives into the decision to give the television component to ESPN, but the written news to the New York Times, in order to maintain control of the message. A must-read for media junkies.

LZ Granderson, who is a columnist at ESPN (and gay as well), says Sam’s announcement maters, but it’s hardly groundbreaking.

Mike Tanier is one of my favorite football writers in the country right now. Although, he’s quickly on his way to becoming one of my favorite writers, period. His piece on Sam is excellent.

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The media (predictably) spent the immediate aftermath of Sam’s announcement debating — what else? — HOW THE MEDIA will treat the story. That statement reads cannibalistic, but the conversation felt genuine. Still, contemporary media’s penchant to hedge the future importance of something — anything, really — as its happening, rather than what it means in the here and now, is fascinating. Let’s play along, if only to work this out in our head and on your computer screen by answering three peripheral questions:

1. Is this a story?

Block everything surrounding this announcement out, and simply look at the decision as to whether or not this is “news.” The answer, of course, is that yes — this is a story. We’re traversing uncharted territory and establishing precedence here. To that end, there is immense news value, and plenty of angles to explore. Saying otherwise is ignorant at best and borderline insulting at worst.

Now, when someone questions the magnitude of the announcement or says “so what?,” they aren’t really downplaying its importance or significance, they are scaling back the scope of media reaction to show progress. The implication of that reaction is that we’ve come so far as a society that an openly gay football player assimilating himself to the NFL culture, by and large, shouldn’t be a big deal anymore. And that, really, silence on the matter — seamlessly moving on with our lives without skipping a beat — displays true acceptance, the kind which doesn’t need acknowledgement because This Is Just The Way Things Are. In theory, this is fine, but we live in the real world, where Sam’s decision engenders attention, both positive and negative.

As an aside, it’s interesting: Sam’s advisors planned the timing in a way that helps NFL officials absorb the news as much as possible before the draft. And while that method could prove effective in terms of his draft position, the media, as its wont to do, could find layers to explore, which will only build anticipation — effectively prompting the exact opposite outcome Sam was looking for. Time will tell, just something to consider.

2. What kind of legs does this story have?

It depends on the inevitable moment when an athlete or media talking head (probably the latter) says something stooooopid. So far the media has spent more time discussing whether or not this is a story (again: it is, you imbeciles), than the story itself. Because that’s how we talk about about everything these days. (e.g. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN?!)

By the way, Herman Edwards never stood a chance here. It’s not a good look, but I suspect, we’ll see worse down the road.

3. OK. That’s a given. Stop dancing around the question: Really, how long?

Fred Toucher compared this to the Manti T’eo scandal last year, which feels off. Toucher’s point is that the T’eo thing was THE story of 2013, but its attention died down shortly after the draft. His argument ultimately fails, however, because while both of these moments live in the era of the 24/7 news cycle, where we drop whatever has our attention for the next shiny object, they are rife with important differences.

Chief among them is that the “distraction” T’eo provided is his own humiliation; meanwhile, Sam’s pending employment (hopefully) fosters progress. This is a critical distinction. Sam is representing an entire demographic, one that this announcement profoundly affects not just today, but going forward. Forever, really. On the other hand, T’eo knowingly perpetuated a lie. It was salacious in every sense of the word, and the ubiquitous failings in the media to uncover the truth was certainly astonishing, but beyond that embarrassment, the story ultimately impacted T’eo and, I suppose, the fourth estate.

But, as with the previous question, the real implication goes beyond the surface of the question. What we’re really asking is “How long will this be THE topic that blogs, columnists, television panels, and radio shows are talking about?”

From an oversaturation standpoint, the period between now and the draft will see prolific overkill. That’s obvious. But it’s a special type of overkill: aimless overkill (my favorite kind!). Because no one, certainly not anyone in the media, is particularly adept at identifying draft value. (Think of how many impact guys come in undrafted every season, or how many third round draft picks outperform first rounders. Trying to reconcile his changed draft status — post-announcement — feels silly and pointless and empty, but simultaneously is an important question. Alas, #EmbraceDebate. Ewwwww.)

After Sam’s drafted – and, despite what one General Manager said in Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column today, we’d be floored if he wasn’t drafted – the story will garner attention in training camp, but no more than other typical preseason storylines “Will RGIII will bounce back?”, “Is Rob Gronkowski healthy?”, “TEBOWWWWWWWWWW!” (I feel like a SportsCenter anchor just needs to yell “Tebow” once every 90 minutes in August – can’t just quit cold turkey). In the end, who cares? We just want to watch football.

As far as outlets ranging from TMZ to CNN? They’ll keep their eye on matters, but direct their attention elsewhere as soon as Justin Bieber enters rehab. So, basically, by Valentine’s Day.

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At the very least, we’ll be taking a break from Pete Carroll: Leader of Men talk this week. Speaking of which, in my Metro column this week, I examine the Carroll era and rank the top-five expatriates of Boston Sports who we wouldn’t want to see a championship. Because lists are always fun. Especially negative lists.

Anyway, as always, thanks for reading. Feel free to say hello in the Twittersphere: @Hadfield__.

  • OpinionNotFact

    The little I heard of D&C this morning I thought was terrible. Somehow they started discussing Chris Broussard’s reaction to Jason Collins coming out and the discussion worked it’s way down the “Would Broussard still have a job if he were white” rabbit hole.
    Way to keep the topic on point fellas.

    • Homer Greenz

      Gerry referred to Sam’s being gay as “a lifestyle”, despite that Sam said this: “I knew from a young age that I was attracted to guys.” Gerry is far too ignorant to be capable of grasping that being gay is in Sam’s DNA and not simply a matter of choice.

  • latetodinner

    So let’s look at the important things in Sam’s announcement.

    - He is a 6′ 1/2″ 260 lb end which makes him a tweener… In the Pats System for example they want a lot more length at the elephant position 6’4″ – 6’5″. Sam reputedly is too slow to play LB (and too small in a system like the one the Pats play) in a 3-4 alignment and it looks like he is too small to play end in a 4/3. So where does that leave him? Now with the announcement that he is gay…all of a sudden his lack of football intangibles becomes secondary. Its great he was SEC defensive player of the year. His problem is he can’t grow.

    - This is the perfect February football story. It is a non event, complete with its own straw men, that has people talking about what ifs and hypotheticals in the NFL just as pitchers and catchers report. Well done NFL.

    - When people compare Sam to Jackie Robinson I ask 3 questions: 1) Can you show me the droning fountain Sam is not allowed to use? 2) Can you show me the hotel that will not allow Sam to stay in it? 3) Has Sam’s education been effected more because he is Gay or black? I ask these questions because the whole premise that what Sam’s coming out is some broad civil rights victory is nuts. This is a slick, well crafted PR campaign designed to win the kid sympathy and in the end more dollars. Let’s not be blinded into thinking this is something it isn’t…some large political statement. The only place where I think the comparison works is this…Robinson only wanted to play baseball, Sam just wants to play football. The rest is filler for the newspapers.

    • bsmfan

      I hope he gets a chance somewhere via the draft or UDFA to at least try and get on the field, but his physical traits are working against him with the NFL. The SEC might be as close as you can get to the NFL but there is still a very high number of guys who don’t work out for a variety of reasons. The # of “sports” columnists who aren’t taking into account his physical traits that might mean he isn’t going to work out in the NFL, unless in a specific team, is insane. If you even mention this? Racist.. Biggot.. people are taking about him suing the NFL if he isn’t drafted are cut. Insane.

  • DryHeave

    Lou Merloni’s take was, ” Sam HAS TO be a GREAT PLAYER he was DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR in the SEC!!!….

    There is a list of Heisman trophy and Outland trophy winners a mile long that have bombed in the NFL I guess that’s eluded Merloni over the years… Sam may very well be an excellent player (if he is, I hope the Pats snag him) but to say he’s a lock to be great cause of some award he won….just stick to baseball, Lou please, just stick to baseball