Michael Sam is caught between a pair of dynamic forces pulling him in opposite directions.
On one side is the NFL and his teammates on the St. Louis Cardinals, who hope the seventh-round draft pick isn’t a distraction as he attempts to earn a roster spot.
On the other side is an army of advocates and activists, who hope the league’s first openly gay player capitalizes on his role and blazes a trail.
The NFL won the first showdown last Friday, when Oprah Winfrey’s TV network put plans for a Sam docu-series on indefinite hold. In a statement, Sam’s agent Cameron Weiss said the postponement “will allow for Michael to have total focus on football, and will ensure no distractions to his teammates.
Everybody involved remains committed to this project and understand its historical importance as well as its positive message,” he said.
We’ll see how long that commitment lasts if Sam doesn’t survive final cuts.
For those who want him to blitz the establishment and mainstream media, that’s the danger in biding time. His place in history is secure, but his relevancy will plummet if he never suits up in the regular season. He can always point to the draft, which should guarantee a decent living as a celebrity spokesman – if nothing else.
But he has to make the team in order to achieve maximum impact for gay rights.
Agreeing to let Oprah’s cameras follow him around seems like a contradiction to observers who wonder if Sam was sincere after the draft. He vowed he was all about football and said he wanted to be judged foremost on that basis. Yet, he’s selling T-shirts and buttons on his website and signed an unprecedented TV deal with Oprah.
None of that would exist if he was a straight seventh-round pick.
However, that doesn’t mean he’s not serious about football, either.
Sam won’t do anything to knowingly jeopardize his shot at the NFL. He just figures that his ability and his work ethic are sufficient to overcome any outside distractions. In that way, he’s like all the other young athletes who believe they’re immune to forces that topple mere mortals.
Besides, the NFL knows that serious preparation and cable entertainment can co-exist. HBO has enjoyed inside access during training camps for eight seasons worth of “Hard Knocks.” (As fate would have it, the Rams qualify for compulsory participation this year, so we still might see plenty of Sam even without Oprah).
No one questioned Robert Griffin III’s commitment to football when he came into the league and became a pitchman for Subway and Gatorade. He maintained enough focus to lead Washington to the playoffs and win the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Chances are great that he could’ve done likewise as the subject of a docu-series.
Sam’s sexuality isn’t the reason some observers criticized the planned TV show. Overall No. 1 draft pick Jadeveon Clowney would’ve caught some flack, too. But he wouldn’t catch nearly as much and that’s not because he’s straight.
Sam’s status as an NFL prospect is seen as too tenuous for him to engage in extracurricular endeavors. His orientation has everything to do with the added exposure but nothing do with the accompanying criticism. Despite his assertion that he should’ve been drafted in the top three rounds, he projects as a marginal NFL player whose best bet is to excel on special teams.
NFL teams could be wrong about him, like they were wrong about London Fletcher, Priest Holmes, Kurt Warner and other great players who went undrafted altogether. Sam can say “I told you so” if he proceeds to have a long, successful NFL career.
But he’s wrong if he claims his sexual preference fueled the doubts about his ability or his wisdom in doing a TV show.
Balancing the competing forces of the NFL and the gay rights movement can’t be easy for Sam, who surely wants to accommodate both. And I can’t blame him for trying to cash in while he can, since his NFL career could be over a few months from now.
Both sides would be better served if Sam was a blue-chip, “can’t-miss” prospect. This would be less of a social experiment and more of a no-brainer situation if Sam was, say, a quarterback along the lines of RG3 or Adam Luck coming out of the draft.
Since that’s not the case, the NFL and gay rights advocates have to work with they have.
All Sam has to do is avoid being torn apart in the process.