ESPN episode proves how much fear over Michael Sam was overblown

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ESPN episode proves how much fear over Michael Sam was overblown
ESPN episode proves how much fear over Michael Sam was overblown

Until ESPN reported Tuesday on Michael Sam's showering habits (or lack thereof), the preseason statistics for the NFL's first openly gay player could have gone as follows:

Five tackles, three sacks, zero "distractions."

All the trumped up fears of media mobs and locker-room hostility and the St. Louis Rams' camp turning into a three-ring circus were just that, fears trumped up by people uncomfortable with what the defensive end does on his own time. None of it ever materialized, from draft day to here on the eve of the Rams' final preseason game in Miami.

Michael Sam laughs on the sideline during the preseason game against the Packers. (AP)
Michael Sam laughs on the sideline during the preseason game against the Packers. (AP)

Even ESPN's report wasn't much and if anything it proved both how baseless the anti-Sam brigade always was, and how strong the bond is between the player and his would-be team.

First off, the story was actually about how much Sam's teammates liked him and how well he was fitting in. It included unnecessary reporting that some teammates have never seen him shower at the facility. More notable was the reaction to it. Sam's teammates again jumped to his defense and it was ESPN that was slammed from nearly all quarters.

"Dear ESPN, everyone but you is over it," Rams defensive end Chris Long tweeted.

Meanwhile coach Jeff Fisher, in comments to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, eviscerated the network as "unethical" and "unprofessional", and said he felt bad for Sam for having to go through it. ESPN has since apologized for the report.

While it would've been preferable for a complete preseason of responsible media coverage, this served as a reminder about what is and isn't reasonable reporting and the stakes involved in crossing that line.

This was a team defending one of its own. The speed and ferocity it used to do it was telling.

Whether Sam gets one of the Rams' final 53 roster spots is anyone's guess.

Thursday's final preseason game is his last best chance to impress. While he's played well, there are still questions over size, speed and strength. He's battling promising rookie Ethan Westbrooks for what may be the final defensive end slot, although Fisher noted they could keep both. Or neither.

St. Louis could try to put Sam on the practice squad, but he may not clear waivers. If so he makes another team.

"I am not only interviewing for the Rams, but I am also interviewing for the other 31 teams," Sam noted to the Post-Dispatch this week.

He could also just get cut and not get picked up, which means he'd wait for a midseason phone call as injuries mount. Or he could keep preparing and try again next year. Or, heck, he could just give up.

We'll see.

No matter what happens Sam has already blazed a trail by proving the ignorant excuses used against him are patently untrue. While it would be a symbolic milestone if he plays in a regular-season game for the Rams, it may not be all that important in the long run.

First, the NFL locker room was clearly ready to accept a gay player. Rams teammates and coaches have been universal in their praise for Sam, both on and off the record. There have been no reported incidents. It's all gone smoothly.

Throughout history, one of the terrible ways that minorities have been denied opportunity is by the establishment claiming "others" aren't ready for them.

A female boss? A black quarterback? A Hispanic lawyer? A woman news anchor? An Indian doctor? A gay soldier? Sadly, for generations the concept that someone, somewhere might not be able to adapt to such a concept was used as an excuse to not even try.

It was junk excuse then. It's a junk excuse now.

It's on the person consumed by bigotry to change, not the subject of that fear and hate.

No matter how easy it is to make a villain out of "the media", Sam's time in camp has produced almost none of the circuses, distractions, onslaughts or anything else that some foolishly claimed would be inevitable. There was just that one, loudly denounced, ESPN report.

Michael Sam shakes hands with coach Jeff Fisher during a news conference in May. (AP)
Michael Sam shakes hands with coach Jeff Fisher during a news conference in May. (AP)

Sam wasn't besieged by a pack of media each day. His coaches and teammates weren't overwhelmed by question after question. Reporters who were solely interested in Sam didn't overrun the locker room. Even if they were, the Rams could've dealt with it, the same way major league baseball teams gladly accommodated throngs of Japanese media who followed their native stars (Ichiro, Daisuke Matsuzaka for example) when they first came to the United States.

In fact, there was very limited on-sight reporting of Sam. The Rams claim out-of-town media visits were essentially the same as any other year. Jeff Fisher noted there was just one additional camera at an organized team activity in the spring. And most Sam stories centered on how there wasn't much to report. He was just a guy trying to make the team.

Just after the NFL draft, Sam cancelled a reality series with the Oprah Winfrey Network even though it likely would've produced no distractions either. The production team would never have had access to the team's facility or Rams players or coaches unless the Rams granted it. So who was going to be rattled by Sam giving interviews back at his apartment?

The thought of a reality show – which other NFL players have – was too much for the NFL though. So it got dropped.

Tony Dungy, the former NFL coach and current NBC analyst, was the most outspoken doubter of Sam. Dungy claimed in an interview with the Tampa Tribune that while he believed Sam had the right to play in the NFL, he would've gone against that belief and instead denied Sam the chance because he wanted to avoid those dreaded "distractions" from the media if he was still in the league.

He later claimed his concerns partially stemmed from the reality show, but the newspaper said the interview took place weeks after the show was ditched.

Since, quite predictably, there really weren't any media distractions, that tired old bit of pass-the-buck-excuse-making can be retired.

An NFL team can feel confident that if it signs Sam or any other openly gay player, whatever silly nightmares so terrified Dungy that he was willing to cave on his convictions won't materialize. If they do, everyone will slam the media outlet. Besides, the second player will get even less attention.

One of the most oft used complaints from Sam detractors is that they don't dislike gay people, they just can't understand, and thus are extremely angry, that the media plays up Sam bigger than other players of similar ability – namely reserve players battling for a roster spot.

Michael Sam works against a Saints player. (Getty)
Michael Sam works against a Saints player. (Getty)

This is just a code word-heavy way to shield their true thinking though. Only a certifiable moron is unaware that the media today can compile detailed analytics on what the public wants to read/watch/discuss and then it serves it to them. The audience feeds the coverage, regardless of the gravitas of the subject.

Or they could just study up on the Kardashians.

Sam was a perfect storm of reader/viewer interest. He was both loved by many and hated by many. As such, the hate fueled even more love, which caused more hate, which eventually created a vortex of intrigue that caused every bit of news and analysis to be gobbled up.

It's a pretty simple concept.

Besides, something new and different is always interesting, or didn't you hear about Mo'ne Davis?

Apparently the only people distracted by Michael Sam was this fringe segment baffled by the volume of media coverage.

Since their anger mostly played out in comment sections below Internet stories that so offended them they clicked and read every word anyway, it's unlikely this affected the installation of the Rams' playbook too much.

So in the end, the Michael Sam tries to make the NFL story was pretty uneventful.

Sam did as he said and focused on being the best football player he could be. The Rams did what they said and gave him a fair shot. If anything, they've gone above and beyond to show acceptance and normalcy to the doubters.

If he makes the team, he makes the team. If he's cut, he's cut.

What happens next, happens next.

What's more important is what happens next after that.

Now that all the fear-mongering has been proven baseless, openly gay players can be viewed and differently. They can be no big deal. No one will ask about the showers or the locker room or the media or the ability of teammates to act to the norms of modern society.

It shouldn't have taken this. But it did.

That's the legacy that comes out of this for Sam, his teammates and the Rams' organization.

That's the result of never cowering in the face of the "distractions" others tried to invent to keep Michael Sam down.

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