Bob Franken: Michael Sam sham?

Have I been taken in? Was Michael Sam’s kiss with his boyfriend after finally being drafted by the St. Louis Rams nothing more than shtick, just a way to promote the marketing of the first openly gay player who had just become part of the NFL? Faithful readers will know that I was among those who cheered the kiss and took malicious delight in how it caused the homophobes out there to get the vapors.


But that was before I learned that he had signed a deal to cooperate in a documentary. With Oprah Winfrey, for crying out loud! Was the kiss just PR? Did he really not mean it at the Scouting Combine, when he told reporters, “I wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”

For those who are not fans, the Combine is a super-hyped, glorified audition. For the record, Sam did poorly, and according to some didn’t even bother training to be in peak physical shape beforehand. Still, the Rams selected him, albeit way down in the seventh round of the draft. Quite a few analysts said he has shortcomings, but he did have a brilliant college career at Missouri.

So far, so good, but when someone is chosen that late, history shows that there is a real good chance he won’t make it at this next level. It means that no matter how hard the team focuses on purely football considerations, there will be tons of people who abhor the oppression of gays who will loudly charge that if he is cut, it was because of bigotry.

The Rams were willing to take that chance. And so was Oprah Winfrey. Sam’s agents and Oprah’s network had already sealed their reality-show deal. And frankly, I don’t know what to think.

On the one hand, this is history, and anytime we can have access to the important events of our times, that’s a plus. But we’re talking TV here and the Oprah Winfrey Network, OWN. This is not the usual nuts-and-twigs fare, and I personally have little confidence that the story will be told in an unvarnished way, unsullied by production considerations and pressure to make it good television.

I’d probably feel a little better if this was being done by someone else. Let’s face it: Unlike the Oprah touchy-feely, football is more like clobber-hurtee. Requiring behemoths to smash into each other at warp speed, risking their brains and skeletons in the process, is brutality as entertainment. It also is a cold business. Not that Oprah doesn’t understand cold business. But in professional sports it’s all about success. You have it or you don’t. No platitudes about personal fulfillment are a substitute for smashmouth blocking and tackling. If Sam can’t hack it, he’ll be dropped like a stone.

He’s fighting an uphill battle with a huge learning curve. The last thing he needs right now is the distraction of performing for the cameras. Learning the playbook is hard enough. Executing it is even harder. Above and beyond any anti-gay bias in the locker room, his teammates might not appreciate all the hubbub undermining their careers. Happily, after a lot of people complained, the Oprah project has been put on hold.

It’s tempting to compare Michael Sam to Jackie Robinson, and obviously the two situations have some parallels. Both use the metaphor of sports to confront deep-seated prejudice. But there are some huge differences. First of all, Robinson was a proven star athlete. Within the NFL context, Sam is a big question mark. Secondly, they didn’t have the same media landscape back then, for better and worse.

I can’t help but wonder if Robinson and his mentor, Branch Rickey, would have agreed to a TV production. I hope not.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.


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