Nearly four days ago, former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay. Since then, it’s been one of the top stories in all of sports, with multiple teams and owners and executives issuing statements, multiple players talking about it, the Commissioner addressing it, and multiple angles and issues being discussed, analyzed, and dissected.
It’s been a media circus, an inevitable one that was destined to greet the first openly gay NFL player. But is the media circus already over?
Cyd Zeigler of Outsports.com, in an item written for Time.com, declares that it is. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello presumably has approved of the conclusion by retweeting a link to the story and the accompanying message that Michael Sam “won’t be the gay Tim Tebow.”
“We’re letting the air out of the balloon before he ever steps foot on an NFL field,” Howard Bragman, Sam’s publicist, told Zeigler. “Our timing is the best thing that could have happened for these teams. . . . Imagine what would happen if we did this after he was drafted. By doing this two weeks before the Combine and three months before the draft, we’re letting people absorb this so everyone can have their say and move on.”
But announcing the news before the draft wasn’t the original plan. Sam’s agent has explained that the player intended to wait until after the draft, but that the timeline was accelerated based on the sense that a reporter soon would be breaking the news.
Whether the decision to make the announcement before the draft was deliberate or forced, the notion that the story will bubble intensely and then disappear seems like a stretch. While linebacker Manti Te’o saw his fake dead girlfriend entanglement go fairly quickly from top mainstream news to afterthought, there was nothing more to say. The questions of whether Te’o was truly duped or in on the scam were explored, he was drafted by the Chargers, the team insulated him from the media throughout the offseason, and by the time the season started it was a non-issue.
With Sam, the story will re-emerge at various points on the 2014 NFL calendar. At the Combine, he’ll be as big of a deal as Te’o was a year ago. Next, the media will pay more attention to Missouri’s Pro Day than it would if Justin Bieber were showing up to kick extra points. (Or perhaps to carefully dribble a basketball between his legs, drive to the hoop against defensive efforts that would embarrass even the Washington Generals, and glare as menacingly as a misguided man-boy ever can.) Next comes the draft, and as Bart Hubbuch of the New York Post recently observed on Twitter, the ratings for Day Three will set new records if Sam isn’t taken by the time round three ends on Friday night, May 9.
After Sam is drafted, the media will seek a reaction from every player and coach on that team. Some may offer controversial views anonymously, which definitely will spark more attention and controversy and, ultimately, media coverage.
Then, Sam will show up for offseason workouts. Then training camp. Then the preseason. Eventually, the question will become whether he makes a 53-man roster. (And if he’s cut, the big top will be back in town all over again.)
Whether it all blows over depends on how everyone handles it, including the media. If, for example, ESPN decides to broadcast live from Michael Sam’s team’s training camp — like it did two years ago with Tim Tebow and the Jets — the circus may want to put its tent poles in cement.
Zeigler also invites the addition of a new ring to the existing circus by contrasting Sam and Tebow, in a way that could rile up the many lingering Tebowmaniacs.
“Sam won’t be tweeting about his sexual orientation and slipping his sexuality into every statement the way Tebow did with Jesus and the Bible,” Zeigler writes. “Tebow infused his religion into everything he did, praising god to the press, leading a very public team prayer after every game, kneeling before God after success on the field. For Sam, his sexual orientation is just part of him. He doesn’t feel the need to proselytize for the ‘gay cause.’”
Tebow’s religious practices may have helped him become a mainstream news figure, but continuing them didn’t keep him there. For Sam, his announcement puts him into a similar stratosphere, and he’ll stay there regardless of whether he tries to or not. He’ll always be the first openly gay player in the NFL. And the media always will be interested in him because of it.
It’s definitely in Sam’s best interests for the media circus to go away and never return. But it’s simply not realistic to believe that the media circus already has been dismantled — and that it won’t be making several return engagements.
“I’m not naive,” Sam said Sunday. “I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is.”
We’re not naive, either. At some point, a player coming out as gay won’t register on the media’s radar screen. Before that happens, one or more have to deal with the attention that flows from it.
No matter how many people tire of the story, Sam’s first year in the NFL will be a story until his first year in the NFL is over, and likely beyond. Along the way, there will be multiple moments when the coverage is nearly as intense as it was on Monday. And we’re confident that there will be teams willing to draft Sam despite the extra level of media focus that comes from welcoming the NFL’s first openly gay player.