Michael Sam's Reality Show Should Not Be a Distraction for Him, Rams or the NFL

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterMay 15, 2014

AP Images

It didn't take long for people to find a reason to be upset with Michael Sam. Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL, will soon become the first openly gay player to be drafted by the NFL who has his own cable television docudrama.

Oprah Winfrey's cable network, OWN, has convinced Sam to let its cameras follow him around, documenting his life as he prepares to become an NFL player.

This news has rankled some football, ahem, traditionalists, who would rather Sam stick to football and not worry about extracurricular interests like being the star of a reality TV show because he has become enormously famous for being gay.

Truth be told, there are really only two things most of America knows about Sam. He was a good college football player who wasn't drafted until the end of the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. And after last Saturday, we know he has a comparatively diminutive Caucasian boyfriend with wavy hair whom he kissed live on ESPN after hearing he was being drafted.

Which of those were more people talking about on Monday? Surely, the fact Sam was drafted is the bigger story. But the bigger news, clearly, became that kiss.

As tolerant as many people have become of someone with a homosexual lifestyle infiltrating the world of the NFL, most don't get to witness two men kissing on a cable sports network every day.

Sam kissing his boyfriend was a unique moment in sports history, somehow managing to turn an intensely personal display of emotions into worldwide news.

Two men kissed after one was selected to be a professional football player. Film...at 11.

Knowing a football player is gay is one thing. Watching a football player be gay was another entirely. That's why this documentary series with OWN can be groundbreaking for Sam. This isn't going to be The T.Ocho Show 2.0. This is going to be a serious look into a gay man's life as he tries to make a professional football team.

The cameras are there to document his journey, and surely people are right to suggest those cameras may be a distraction from Sam reaching that goal. The Rams knew that drafting Sam would be a distraction as well, but it's something the team—and head coach Jeff Fisher—decided it could handle.

Why do we think Sam can't?

"Like every player out there working to make a team right now, my focus is on playing football to the very best of my ability," Sam said via press release. "I am determined. And if seeing my story helps somebody else accept who they are and to go for their dreams too, that’s great. I am thankful to Oprah for her support and excited to work together."

Is Sam being an opportunist? Of course he is. The guy was drafted with the 249th pick in a draft that only had 256 players selected. The chances of any seventh-round pick making his team are traditionally slim, no matter how good a fit the team—in this case, Sam's hometown Rams—may be.

Add in all the existing distractions from outside media with internal distractions like the inevitable locker room issues—even in the most accepting NFL locker room, there will be some players who disagree with Sam's lifestyle—and Sam is already about as distracted as an NFL rookie can get.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

If Sam gets cut during camp or makes the team but never dresses for games and eventually washes out of the league after Week 13 because the Rams need to sign a backup punter or something, the story will be news, and then Sam will be forgotten. We will remember the scene at the draft, and in a few years he will be a trivia question of some sort, but his story will be brushed aside with every other story of hardship and triumph as the narratives in sports keep rolling along.

Or, maybe Sam will be a great player who makes the Rams' game-day roster every week, works his way up to being a contributor on the defensive line and becomes a Hall of Fame-caliber player.

Maybe when we look back during his speech in Canton in 15 years, he will comment on that moment just after he was drafted and talk about that kiss everyone spent so much time discussing.

Maybe by 2029 or so, seeing two men kiss on a sports channel on TV won't be a big deal anymore, because there will be so many openly gay football players in the NFL it won't even be news when another player decides to come out, thanks to people like Sam who took those first courageous steps.

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

Maybe one of those scenarios will happen for Sam. Or maybe neither. Maybe Sam plays football for a few years and makes a little money and then goes into public speaking or runs for political office.

Maybe football will prove to be a means to a much bigger end for Sam.

We don't know what will happen with Sam, which is why his story is so compelling. He isn't a star. He isn't the best player on the team or the most media-driven guy who is using the NFL as a way to grow his Twitter following.

Sam chose to walk a different path after announcing he is gay, and it will be interesting to see the nascent steps of that journey as it happens.

People may be upset that Sam invited cameras in because he should focus on football, but the entire story surrounding Sam's announcement has been about everything other than football.

Sam chose to control his life, and in turn his message, by announcing he was gay in advance of the draft. That wasn't for the NFL teams, as Sam has said that most of the scouts already knew that he was gay. It was for us. It was for all the writers who have churned out all these words about a good college football player hoping to get a chance to make an NFL team.

It was for the fans of the NFL who now get a chance to see that being gay isn't some kind of secret that needs to be hidden in the macho world of professional football.

It was for those who question his personal choices, to show them that a man choosing to kiss another man in an expression of love and joy on a Saturday in May will not preclude that man from trying to sack quarterbacks on Sundays in September.

A distraction?

We are worried about this OWN show being a distraction for Sam? His entire life the last four months has been a distraction.

LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 9: Michael Sam #52 of the Missouri Tigers celebrates with fans after the game against the Kentucky Wildcats at Commonwealth Stadium on November 9, 2013 in Lexington, Kentucky. Missouri won 48-17. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Sam went on the biggest job interview of his life wearing a lime green suit and a propeller hat while jumping on a pogo stick, and he still managed to handle the process with composure, professionalism and maturity.

A couple of cameras tracking him in the gym or filming him while he relaxes on the couch after practice aren't going to bother him. They shouldn't bother any of us.

In fact, the NFL fans should love it. Forget about the reasons why Oprah's cameras are following Sam around, and think for one second that an NFL player is giving us access to his life as he tries to earn a spot on a team.

If only the NFL had a show like this. I bet it would be pretty popular. Per CBSSports.com:

The NFL will guarantee participation of NFL teams for the HBO show Hard Knocks.

The measure passed by a vote at the fall league meeting being held in Washington. The move eliminates some of the scrambling that has occurred in the past getting teams to go on the show. Now the NFL has the authority to compel a team to be on the show.

The NFL put in place rules to force—yes, force—teams to participate in HBO's behind-the-scenes look at NFL training camp. If a team has been on the show in the last 10 years, has made the playoffs in the last two years or has a new coach, that team can opt out of being chosen. Everyone else is fair game.

Based on those criteria, there are eight teams this year that are eligible, so to speak, to be the focus of Hard Knocks. One of those is the Rams.

Al Behrman/Associated Press

Why let the playoff teams off the hook? One, it's a reward for those coaches who hate the distraction. Two, there is more drama around a team trying to make it to the playoffs than one that's already there. There is a story in the struggle that compels people to watch.

Human drama is steeped in adversity, which is why NFL fans have been drawn to that type of show. Is it a distraction? Sure, it's a distraction. So is everything else in life.

Sam knows that better than most. His entire existence since coming out has been a distraction from trying to become an NFL player. Or, perhaps, it's his motivation.

What if being able to share his journey and tell his story serves as a way to focus him? What if he really just wants to crash on the couch and eat Twinkies all night, but he can't because he knows how it would look in front of the cameras?

What if being a role model for other gay players has given Sam a purpose that pushes him to be better than his physical limitations suggest, and what if having the cameras there creates an environment where he is always focused on that goal, always working to get, and be, better?

Or what if a guy who was a late-round pick wants to capitalize on the fact that he's the biggest story to come out of the NFL draft, at least the one whose last name isn't "Football"?

L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

It's funny, because thinking about this reality show in the context of Johnny Manziel puts Sam's decision in even greater perspective. What if cameras were following Johnny Football? Would people like that more than Sam, or would they find it distracting? Or would it be the same thing, with a player who has a story to tell and an audience that is interested in hearing it at a time when there are six billion ways for people to share their lives with people interested in watching them?

It's a distraction, and Sam should be focused on trying to make the Rams.

Only he is, just like Manziel is trying to make the Browns and the other 254 drafted players are trying to make their respective teams.

We just get to watch part of Sam's journey, and that shouldn't be a distraction for him, or for any of us.


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