Michael Sam doing a reality show is a fantastic idea...just not now.
That's the decision the St. Louis Rams defensive end made this weekend after a whirlwind couple of weeks that saw Sam become the first openly gay NFL player, as well as the newest member of a Rams defensive line that could send shivers up just about any quarterback's spine.
Sam, who has spent plenty of time and sound bites on the message that he just wants to be seen as a football player, caught some flak as it became known that he was planning a reality TV show on the OWN Network—aka Oprah's personal money-printing machine.
Now he has decided to postpone that project, according to a release from his representation (via Darren Rovell of ESPN.com):
"After careful consideration and discussion with the St. Louis Rams, 'The Untitled Michael Sam Project' has been postponed, allowing Michael the best opportunity to achieve his dreams of making the team," OWN president Erik Logan said in a statement. "OWN is about elevating and empowering people to achieve their best. It's clear that we, along with the world, recognize the opportunity that Michael has in this moment. We will continue to support him in his journey to earn a spot playing for the Rams."
There are always going to be people who are up in arms and vocally upset based on anything "Michael Sam: Gay NFL Player" does. These people are called trolls and should be ignored. Worse yet, there are going to be people who make their living bloviating about him in order to stir up people in the first group.
Not only should this second group be ignored, but also actively shunned as if this were colonial America and they had scarlet "A's" pinned to their chest.
In this instance, the "A" stands for a word that Bleacher Report's content standards prohibit me from typing.
However, it's more than reasonable to question Sam's message as wanting to be seen primarily as "Michael Sam: Football Player" weighed against this action which is so clearly contrary to the core message he's been preaching. It's also easy to wonder if a seventh-round pick with a reality TV show might be a little abrasive to teammates before his first professional snap.
There is a tendency to speak about any topic in moral absolutes—black and white, right and wrong—but Sam's right to do a TV show and his choice to do one isn't up for that sort of debate. Instead, this is a nuanced discussion about timing and of the tone of Sam's message.
Michael Sam: Self-Made Celebrity Deserves This, Michael Sam: Football Player Doesn't (Yet)
This pervasive idea exists regarding Sam that is simply nonsense: He is not a media-created celebrity, nor is he the product of any sinister agenda.
No, Sam is who he is, and that is newsworthy.
A very vocal group of the Internet commentariat react to almost any story they don't like as if the media controls what people care about. Now, the "media" as an overarching entity can certainly lead and advance the narrative, but people have far more freedom to care about what they want than that theory suggests.
The tail does not wag the dog here.
ESPN, or sports media at large, did not "create" the Michael Sam story. No, Sam was a story all on his own because he taps into a large underappreciated and underserved segment of the fanbase: gay sports fans.
At a corporate level, the NFL may preach tolerance and acceptance, and that's good, but being pro-gay is not exactly their core message. Nor, really, does it have to be. It could be, and that would be fine too, but no one is asking the NFL to make it so.
The NFL's core function is not to make social statements, but to make money off of the game of football. Business is good, and making potentially boat-rocking social statements usually isn't great for business. However, appealing to a large, growing and potentially lucrative section of the fanbase always is.
Yes, gay sports fans do exist, and they're not going anywhere. Also, a lot of them seem to really love Sam, and why not? No matter what you personally think about him or them or whatever, he's a figure for them and has been compared to names like Jackie Robinson and Harvey Milk.
Because of those simple facts, Sam's brand always had the potential to be huge the moment he came out, as Mark Burns of Sporting News points out:
For Sam's new agent, Joe Barkett of Empire Athletes, the past few weeks have been a constant battle of fielding calls not only from journalists, but also from brands and companies that want to sign his client in order to target the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Despite all of the attention for Sam, Barkett isn't making any kneejerk decisions—at least in the short term.
In an effort to market to the untapped gay community, smart brands will focus on Sam's excellence on the field while keeping their message relevant to the general market of consumers. Considering its history of non-traditional sports marketing, Red Bull could be a brand that might align with Sam, according to a few industry experts. In late 2013, Nike announced its support of the Freedom To Marry and Religious Protection Initiative in Oregon and its belief in marriage equality. With its solid reputation in the LGBT community along with a few endorsement deals already in place with gay athletes, including the WNBA's Brittany Griner, Nike could be at the top of the list.
Speaking of things like inclusion and tolerance in such corporate terms can feel sterilized at best and both ham-handed and downright despicable at worst (more on that later), but it's the best way to point out that Sam's potential to be buzzworthy wasn't contingent on the media covering him so voraciously.
Rather, it was the fact that Sam was such a huge story—inherently, of his own accord—that led to the media's wall-to-wall coverage.
In that way, Sam's insane early jersey sales remind me a little bit of Tracy McGrady's sales in China while Yao Ming was his teammate. At that time, China was a huge underserved market for the NBA, and Ming gave them a big-time portal into it. Once the more basketball-crazed in China started watching Yao's games, McGrady (who had already done PR tours in the country) became a bigger superstar than he was in America at the high point of his career.
Sam, in much the same way, appeals to a large (and growing) segment of NFL fans in a similar but maybe secondary way. Let's not pretend that plenty of gay men and women don't already love football and have their favorite teams and players. Of course, that is the case, but now they have a strong and compelling reason to root for Sam and the Rams as well.
Not to mention that Sam also appeals to the fringe of the NFL fanbase and people who may not have considered themselves football fans beforehand. This is an important piece of the puzzle, as it shows he not only has a piece of the total NFL pie at his disposal, but he's actually helped expand the market.
David Crary of The Associated Press (h/t ABC News) recently tapped into this dual nature of Sam's popularity:
[Kate] Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, grew up in Ogden, Utah, far from any NFL city, and became a fan of the Los Angeles Rams because she's an Aries and liked their uniforms. ...
"I feel like my support for the NFL now doesn't have an asterisk come with it," Kendell said. "It's now truly America's game."
The milestone has made gay fans more enthusiastic and already is drawing newcomers into the fold. Many may become Rams fans or – like [Paul] Guequierre – henceforth consider St Louis "my second favorite team." ...
Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler said that Sam—if he makes the Rams' roster—will further boost the NFL's popularity among gays.
"People who have never liked football are buying Michael Sam jerseys," he said. "People who have never watched a game watched the draft."
Zeigler, as he is wont to do, makes a really important point there. Sam hasn't even stepped on the NFL field yet. The cameras and bright lights haven't even really found him yet in spite of the aforementioned coverage—at least, not in comparison with how they could and likely will find him.
Sam, as a seventh-round pick, isn't worthy of this kind of attention, and that's significant whether or not Sam, as the first gay man in the NFL, is.
Focus on Football, and Fame and Fortune will Follow
It's fitting that the link above to Sam's statement is from ESPN's business reporter, Darren Rovell. Rovell is a writer whose work I enjoy, but that periodically comes under fire from fans and many in sports media for "brand-ifying" every single news story that comes out about athlete or team—often, it seems, missing the forest for the trees.
To be clear: How a story affects someone's "Q-rating" is rarely the biggest or most important angle of a news story, but it is Rovell's beat, so I'm not sure what his very vocal critics expect.
For this angle of Sam's journey to the NFL, though, brand—and the science of what goes behind building one's personal brand—is uniquely important.
Right now, Sam has incredible potential as a brand. Maybe that doesn't matter to you, but it has to matter to him. "Brand," in many ways, can be shorthand for, "who is going to pay me the money I will live on the rest of my life."
NFL players don't last very long—two or three years is an average career for any player, let alone such a low draft pick. As a professional, Sam's moneymaking potential is limited. Making a roster is one thing, but even if he plays lights-out, it's a game where one hit could be the end of his career.
As the old saying goes: Make hay while the sun shines.
From that perspective, it's absolutely, 100 percent appropriate that Sam, as a business decision, would want to do this reality show. Not only is it a moneymaking opportunity, but it also has the ability to have a domino effect in terms of attracting brands.
To put it in more human terms, Sam's football career might only pay him a couple hundred thousand dollars. Yet the endorsement deals he signs today and parlays into bigger and better things could double or triple that amount—even in a worst-case scenario.
That's why it's a little underhanded for people to be against Sam doing something that doesn't affect their life but could have a profound impact on his. It's rarely a good idea to tell people how to make their money, and it borders on stupid to take an arbitrary stance against the same when it doesn't impact you in the slightest.
It's not just Sam, and it's not just reality shows. People seem to love to attack athletes for "loving money," when it isn't as if any one of those critics would take less money to do their current job. Love of the game is one thing, but that's a fine theory when it isn't our livelihoods we're taking about.
With that as the basis for our discussion, the next step is to simply say: wait.
Yes, that flies in the face of the clearly advantageous position Sam is in. From a brand management perspective, it's the waste of an opportunity. However, from a longer-term vantage point, Sam has to ask himself: Why am I doing this?
Right now, in a way, Sam is more hype than substance. While he had a fantastic college career, that's not what he's being lauded for. He's being lauded for being the first openly gay man in the NFL, and that hasn't actually happened yet.
Here's the dirty little secret of how celebrity works: You don't have to do anything.
If OWN wanted Sam for a reality show because of his stellar college career, they'd put his new show right in between shows about Tim Tebow, Kellen Moore and Sam's fellow All-American, Jackson Jeffcoat. No, instead they want him for reasons that have little to do with his on-the-field exploits and more to do with the story he represents.
That story isn't going away.
Sam's goal, though, could. If this show rubs the Rams or his teammates the wrong way (they didn't know about it prior to drafting him), it could jeopardize his NFL career. Even failing that, just the stress of having one's life chronicled 24/7 could lead to negatives down the road. Or how about the fact that teammates may either decide not to include him based on the cameras following him around or that they must include him when they normally wouldn't because of them?
It's all rather trivial, and it's all stuff that Sam doesn't really need right now.
That's the point here, isn't it?
This is all one, two or five steps removed from things that actually matter on a football field. On the one hand, it's possible to say that, "None of this matters; let the man do his TV show." On the other, though, it's very possible to say that "None of this matters, so why do a TV show?"
It is Sam's right to do a show whenever he choose. It was the wise choice to wait until a time where his NFL career has a little more substance to it.
Owning His Truth Was Important to Michael Sam, and It Still Should Be
"I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam, the football player; not Michael Sam, the gay football player.”
Those were the words Sam told the reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine back in February. He echoed those sentiments in a Visa commercial and at his introductory presser for the Rams.
Nothing about a reality show has anything to do with that core message.
When Sam came out, he said that he was doing so to "own his truth." That's a powerful message for gay men and women who are so often defined by others rather than by themselves. It's a message that resonated as he came out to his teammates on his own terms, then to America, rather than let some seedy member of the media or a leaked NFL source do it for him.
That's who Sam is right now. He's a young man trying to play football, yes, but he has managed to own his truth at every step of the turn.
Reality TV doesn't trade in truths; it trades in drama and in controversy.
Sam's representation tried to allay some of those concerns by pointing out that Sam's reality show was being filmed by "trusted partners," but resumes including Lindsey Lohan's reality show and "American Chopper" don't exactly inspire confidence or make people envision the Ken Burns treatment.
If Sam wants to own his truth, why hand that truth over to someone else?
Again, this isn't about Sam's moral right to do a reality show or even begrudging him for wanting to take advantage of a moneymaking opportunity. In that regard, go ahead, go nuts. I'll watch once I figure out if I even have the OWN Network and where in the world it is on my cable provider's channel listings.
It isn't even, as some have suggested, about being irate that Sam has changed his mind.
You know what would make me shift from my position of "just see me as a football player?" Oprah money. Oprah money would move me off of that position real quick, and that's OK. Want to pretend you wouldn't make the same decision for a sack full of cash? Go ahead, live that fantasy.
Sam gets to change his mind, just like he can do whatever reality show he wants.
This is still about the wisdom of the choice, not his right to make that choice. Frankly, Sam's decision to delay the reality show makes me a little more confident in my opinion here, because it seems like he may be agreeing with me.
In the great book of Sam's life, he's finished the prologue, and maybe a chapter or two. Handing that book over to reality show producers (even for Oprah money) means that he no longer owns a significant chunk of his truth.
It means, for better or for worse, that he would be allowing someone else to write the next few chapters of that story while he was just a character. Actually, in reality show terms, caricature might be the more appropriate term.
The most vocal critics are going to have a negative thing to say about anything Sam does, doesn't do and even things that don't even remotely involve him. Add in a reality show, and suddenly his every little move isn't just dissected by that more vocal group, it's dissected by everyone.
At that moment, it isn't just Sam who owns his truth, or even the producers of his show (trusted as they are). It's also Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, The Soup, TMZ, Perez Hilton, Matt Drudge, John Steward, Stephen Colbert...and on and on and on.
Positive coverage, negative coverage? It doesn't matter.
In a world where the idiots have already devoted serious time and attention to digging up mob connections that Sam's boyfriend has deep within his family's past, which is somehow supposed to reflect negatively on Sam (these people are idiots, remember?), why open that door before it is time?
It speaks to the core question here: What is Sam's goal?
Sam, in postponing the show, has answered that question for the umpteenth time, and he has done so in a clear voice. His goal is to play in the NFL. The accouterments to that will come, as they always do to star players, but majoring in the minors of his career right now was not the correct course of action.
Sam isn't a media creation or a bubble waiting to be burst, but doing a reality show right now was setting himself up for that possibility. By waiting, he not only insulates himself and his team from even more coverage during what is sure to be a coverage-filled time, but he also continues to own his truth.
For Sam supporters, that's great news.