Ever since I saw the ESPN news alert pop up on my phone that Michael Sam would become the first openly gay NFL prospect, I can’t seem to turn away from the media coverage.
As a former sports journalist, I’ve been fascinated by the spectrum of content that’s been produced. There have been shining examples of in-depth reporting (like this New York Times piece
) juxtaposed with the sheer cowardice of some reporters (looking at you, Sports Illustrated
As a University of Missouri alum (where Sam played) and one of those people who travels to watch them play football at opposing stadiums, I’m a rabid Mizzou fan, you might say. As an ardent supporter of gay rights everywhere, I want to see a day where homosexuality is as widely accepted as having green eyes or being left-handed. As an NFL fan, my Thursdays nights, Sundays and Monday nights have been usurped by this sport for as long as I can remember. As a Chicago Bears fan, I can only hope they deem Michael Sam a good fit for their currently lackluster defense.
Finally, as a writer for this website, I was fascinated to see the coordinated effort that was made to roll out this story to the media at large. I was also shocked to see the different levels of preparedness teams had in responding to questions about whether Sam would be welcome.
It gave me an even deeper appreciation of what goes into making an announcement of this magnitude. If you haven’t yet seen Out Sports’ story
of how Michael Sam came out, it should be reading for PR pros.
Michael Sam and his team of supporters owned the story up until Sunday night. When it became clear that their ability to own the story was dwindling, they made the right decision to go public.
There was the coverage of the announcement itself. This was followed by the “Who is Michael Sam?” stories. Next came the public reaction stories: from the NFL, from players, from non-football athletes, and so on. Then there was the digging for dissenting opinion.
That’s when reporters—most notably from Sports Illustrated
—started calling to get anonymous quotes from NFL team executives. Those execs’ reactions suggested a disturbing lack of empathy and understanding. It was clear that they weren’t prepared. These executives expressed warped, old-school opinions—namely, that they were worried drafting Sam might lead to unwanted controversy—that represent such a minority of thought that they deserve zero attention.
I’m surprised that anyone in a position to talk to a reporter wasn’t better coached on this moment. Because those sources remained anonymous, it doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on any one team, or even the league in general (given that the NFL publicly offered only messages of support).
I’m also surprised, though, that no one gave the heads up to team officials that whatever your stance on the subject, if you think X, you’re in the minority and you certainly don’t speak for every executive. Therefore, it’s probably best to keep out of the conversation.
I can’t claim to have intimate knowledge of the inner workings of an NFL locker room, but I can say with confidence that in my experience, a co-worker’s sexual preference has never had a negative effect on any professional team I’ve been a part of.
Bottom line: There was never any question that there would someday be an openly gay player in the NFL. Not every PR pro associated with the league failed in the days leading up to and after Michael Sam’s announcement. But enough did fail to warrant a reminder that inaction in our profession can have very negative consequences.
As communicators, we have the phenomenal ability (and responsibility) to seed worthy conversations in the public discourse that will reach far beyond our profession, far beyond our industry and, if we’re lucky, effect change.
For all the reasons I listed above and more, I’m biased. I want Michael Sam to succeed. I want him to inspire others in ways that we don’t even comprehend right now.
[RELATED: Qualify for a 15-minute demo of PressPage, the leading digital newsroom technology, and get a $15 Amazon.com gift card.]
I hope we can all find our own personal lessons through his story—and at the same time recognize that we’re not just in this to “control the message” or spin a story to our employer’s advantage. We can create healthy dialogue and foster valuable discourse, even if it means telling some people in our company to shut the hell up.