Michael Sam and the Draw That Changed American Sports Forever
Photography by Richard Phibbs | Styling by Grant Woolhead
Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted into the National Football League, is a big fucking deal. This fact alarms many people — not least Sam himself, who mistrusts the media and who expressed skepticism, the day I met him in New York, that his coming out was really an act of courage, as nearly everyone has proclaimed.
Other facts about Sam have also caused alarm: that he stands at only 6-feet-1-and-a-half-inches, more than two inches shorter than the average NFL defensive end; and that, despite having been voted the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, Sam was drafted 249th out of 256, the lowest pick — by 100 spots — in the history of the award. Some are bothered by the fact that just seconds after his draft, Sam gave his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, the most famous gay kiss of all time; others find it troubling that Sam is already enjoying the perks of professional stardom, including an award from ESPN and a lucrative deal with Visa, despite never having played a minute of professional football. And still others are angered by the fact that Sam has been the victim of an apparent double standard, wherein high-profile draftees like Johnny Manziel — white, rich, and straight — are celebrated for racking up endorsements and Instagramming themselves holding fistfuls of cash while Sam, who grew up in extreme poverty and has turned down countless sponsorship deals, is being savaged for the small steps he’s taken to capitalize on something that, despite his protestations, really is a huge deal: that the NFL, the richest sports league in history and the most macho show on earth, has drafted someone who is gay.
The extent of Sam’s courage was revealed by the events that followed his coming out. After declaring his orientation in an interview with ESPN, Sam immediately fell 70 spots on the CBS draft board, withstood online abuse from NFL players and team managers, attracted protests from the Westboro Baptist Church, and inspired a Republican lobbyist to pursue legislation banning gay athletes from professional football. Worst of all, he had to read disapproving comments from his own father, who told The New York Times that Deacon Jones, the legendary defensive lineman, would be “turning over in his grave” at the thought of a gay player in the NFL. Somewhat counteracting the negativity were the notes of encouragement Sam received from the likes of President Barack Obama, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and football hall of famers such as Deion Sanders. None of them were draft scouts, though.
While making history in the NFL, Sam has concurrently joined an elite club: the miniscule number of people whose reputations have been damaged, not enhanced, by an association with Oprah Winfrey. For Sam’s critics, his decision to participate in a documentary series for the Oprah Winfrey Network, a channel with a primarily female viewership, seemed like proof that drafting Sam would bring shame upon the NFL — if not by transforming teammates into “lustful cockmonsters,” to use Kluwe’s phrase, then by polluting the league’s heroic aura by mixing it with reality TV. Attention from Winfrey provided the alchemy through which Sam’s “big deal” became a “big distraction,” a term with no fixed meaning that has nonetheless played a decisive role in Sam’s tumultuous year (one of Sam’s agents told me he wants the word “distraction” banned and removed from the dictionary).
Top: Shirt by Tommy Hilfiger
Middle: Jersey by Topman
The problem with the Winfrey backlash is that while every sports league has to negotiate the tension between players’ status as athletes and their status as celebrity entertainers, the NFL has already ruled decisively in favor of entertainment, allowing numerous reality shows to infiltrate its locker rooms and document players’ lives on and off the field. Between documentary series like A Football Life, 30 for 30, and Hard Knocks on the one hand, and sex-and-dating-driven reality shows starring players such as Eric Decker, Terrell Owens, Chad Ochocinco, and Hank Baskett on the other, there is only one possible frontier that a Sam reality show could cross: the gay one.
Another difference with Sam, some have argued, is that, despite his accolades, he has not yet proven himself in the holy rituals of physical accomplishment required to earn him the right to parade himself on television. The rule seems to be “yes, you’re allowed to make millions off of your football celebrity, just not for the achievement of committing an astonishing act of trailblazing bravery.”
The reality is that in his 24 years on the planet, Sam has already overcome far more than virtually anyone in the NFL. Growing up as the seventh of eight children in Hitchcock, Texas, a small town outside Galveston, Sam drew a difficult hand. When he was 5 years old, his parents separated. Shortly thereafter, he witnessed his older brother Russell die of a gun-shot wound. At age 8, Sam and his younger sister were the last people to see their older brother Julian before he vanished in a suspected kidnapping. Two other brothers ended up in prison. For a time during elementary school, Sam was homeless and lived with his mother in a car. As Sam put it in his coming-out interview on ESPN, his life thus far has been filled with “some hardships, some tragedies, and some adversity. Telling the world I’m gay is nothing compared to that.”
On May 6, two days before the NFL draft, I flew to New York to meet Sam. I had never been as anxious for an interview. I was nervous for myself — would I get him to open up to me, a bookish ectomorph half his size? I was also nervous for him. As judgment day approached, the sports blogosphere had started to turn against Sam, and a new conventional wisdom was taking hold: Sam might not get drafted at all. Our interview would take place hours before one of the most consequential, nerve-wracking moments of his life. Would he trust me?
Our plan was to meet in Chelsea at the studio of photographer Richard Phibbs, who was shooting Sam for Out’s cover, then walk together to a nearby hotel. When I entered the studio, I saw a cluster of gay men huddled around Sam, who was naked from the waist up and holding a football as if he were a Greek god wielding a thunderbolt. The men were flirting. “Show me — is this the way you throw a ball?” one man asked, pantomiming a pass. “It’s more like this,” Sam responded, adhering to the script of the high school mating ritual. He then executed a mock throw whose subtleties impressed the gathered fans but transcended my understanding. Madonna’s “Candy Shop” then came over the speakers, and the group dispersed to take their positions while Sam suited up in shoulder pads and a jersey. Standing tall, broad, and somber in front of a black screen, Sam did not look happy, but he did look fabulous.
When I scanned the room, I was startled to recognize director Amy Rice, a Winfrey hand famous for sparring with Lindsay Lohan on the OWN docuseries Lindsay. An obsessive Lohan fan, I rushed to introduce myself. After I explained why I was there, Rice handed me a release. Hadn’t anyone told me? The network was planning on filming my interview with Sam. As soon as I signed the form, though, Sam’s publicist quashed the idea. Sam was not in a good mood — he could barely be persuaded to do the interview at all, let alone on camera.
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The first 15 minutes of the interview were excruciating. Sam refused to make eye contact with me. His answers were curt and nonrevealing. What was college like? “It’s a normal school.” How did you like living in Columbia, Mo.? “It’s a normal town.” He delivered his responses as rebuttals, swatting away my questions as if blocking kicks from a tedious adversary. He seemed especially determined to keep a lid on any details regarding his relationship with Cammisano. Do you go on dates? “Yeah, we date.” What do you like to do together? “We do what people who date do.” I was starting to understand why he won Defensive Player of the Year. The only information he volunteered was that he felt annoyed that the photo shoot had run over and thrown off his schedule. “I don’t like when the plan changes,” he huffed.
Desperate to turn things around, I started talking about myself and mentioned visiting a boyfriend in upstate New York. Suddenly Sam’s head perked up; for the first time, he looked me in the eyes. “Wait—you’re gay?” I wasn’t sure how this could have been unclear. “Uh, yes,” I replied, wonder- ing how he was going to take the news. “Oh!” he blurted, his voice rising five octaves. “And Aaron [Hicklin, Out’s editor in chief ]? Is he gay, too?” I nodded. His face melted into a smile; he inched his chair closer to the table and loosened the furrow in his brow. “I thought you guys were straight! That’s why I was giving you a hard time.” His eyes, which had glared with impermeability all through the shoot, suddenly started to radiate warmth and comradeship. Sam’s metamorphosis was so sudden and cartoonish, it suggested how much energy he was having to expend to protect his sexual orientation from people he feared would use it against him.
Whereas before Sam had refused to discuss his relationship, now he was busting out his phone and showing me pictures of his treasured man. I had seen some images of Cammisano online, but these were better. “Very cute!” I exclaimed. He was clearly used to such compliments, and clearly gratified by them. He responded, “Thank you, thank you,” in a practiced tone that reminded me of a politician trying to quell applause before launching into a speech. “I’m sorry about before — I just thought you were some reporter after a story. Some of those guys are vultures.” Sam may not have an effective gaydar, but he had a keenly developed sense of kinship. His entire adult life had been dominated by teams and, evidently, a binary vision of friend or foe. All it took was the word “boyfriend” for him to switch from lion to lamb, and to become not only cooperative but downright solicitous. “Have you still not gotten your tea?” he fretted. I hadn’t. He hounded the waiter and obtained my tea, but he was still worried. “Are you sure you don’t want lemon and honey?” He was a strong advocate of lemon and honey.
He then launched into his life story, skipping over the bad parts. His journey to the NFL started in the seventh grade, when his father, a long-haul truck driver who had moved to Dallas, prevailed upon his mother, a Jehovah’s Witness, to let Sam participate in school sports (Jehovah’s Witnesses are forbidden from playing sports or doing anything that requires consorting with nonbelievers, such as sitting on juries and donating blood). In the beginning, he was just a water boy. By the time he entered high school, though, he was a starter on his school’s varsity squad. (“I kind of stood out from most of my teammates,” he later wrote in an email. “I started getting letters and visits from scouts and coaches from schools all over the place.”) At that point, he had no illusions about the NFL — he was just trying to get to college, something no one in his family had ever done.
After high school, Sam accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Missouri. Though he was only a two-star recruit, his talent grew over his four years at Mizzou, as it’s affectionately known, and in his senior year he was unanimously voted a first-team All-American. “That was my goal all through college,” he said — it was the honor he was proudest of. All-Americans at Mizzou get their portraits painted, Sam explained, and he pulled out his phone again to show me his portrait. “When I first saw it I just stared at it for a while. That was my goal, and I achieved it.” Sam’s signature move as a Mizzou defensive end was executing an outside rush around an opposing offensive tackle. He was also known for his fondness for singing during practice. “I’d sing Madonna, Marvin Gaye — whatever came into my mind,” he said. “My coaches got used to it over time. They’d say, ‘That’s just Michael Sam.’ ”
Sam met Cammisano at one of the first big parties he attended in his freshman year. “We didn’t start off as huge fans of each other,” he says. It was a lingerie party, and Cammisano was dressed as a rabbit, his underwear amplified by a bushy white tail. Sam remembers the tail because when he first saw him, Cammisano was bent over the railing of a second-story garden deck, violently puking. “I went up to him to ask if he was OK, and he started cursing at me, screaming, ‘Fuck off — do you know who I am?’ ” A new kid at Mizzou, Sam wasn’t aware that Cammisano was a star swimmer. “I told him I didn’t care who he was. We didn’t speak again for two years.”
By the time they were reintroduced by a mutual friend during Sam’s junior year, Cammisano had come out as gay. Sam, though, was still in the closet. One night, the trio went out together to a bar. “I could see he was interested,” Sam said. “I bought him a couple of drinks, got us tipsy. Toward the end of the night, I put my arm around him, and it was over.” The two started dating, but Sam was concerned about his teammates finding out. “Everyone knew Vito was gay, so we couldn’t even be seen together. There was a lot of climbing out of windows.” Eventually, the two split. As time went on, though, Sam grew more comfortable with being gay and the couple got back together before Sam’s senior year. This time they made no efforts to hide their relationship, and Sam decided it was time to formally come out to his team. “Vito was really the person who showed me I had to do it,” Sam said. “I wanted us to be comfortable.”
Just as we were getting to the good stuff, a pert, well-groomed woman came to our table. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” she said. “I’m from Visa. I need to take Michael now for the recording.” I didn’t realize it would be the last time Sam and I would speak.
Four days after what was supposed to be the first of several interviews with Out, Michael Sam was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. Seconds after the announcement, ESPN filmed him celebrating the moment with a passionate kiss that has since been viewed millions of times around the world. Three days later, he gave a joint press conference with Rams coach Jeff Fisher stating that his focus moving forward would be exclusively on football. The next day, the Oprah Winfrey Network announced it was filming a series about Sam, directed by Amy Rice, which blindsided the Rams and caused the sports world to erupt with criticism. Two days after that, OWN announced the series was being put on hold, and Sam went into a media freeze in order to focus on making the Rams’ 53-man roster. On June 12, Sam made the team, signing a 4-year contract worth more than two and a half million dollars.
Over the past four months, as Sam’s fortunes have swung from the giddiest highs to the most deflating lows, he has been freighted with inordinate expectations from all quarters. To satisfy his skeptics, he has had to clear an ever-expanding set of personal and professional hurdles: In effect, he has had to walk prouder, play harder, earn less, and allow himself to be fumbled around as the media’s football in a way unknown to the vast majority of his comparatively anonymous peers.
Sam’s supporters have been nearly as unreasonable. Despite the achievements of figures like Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers, there is still a yearning among LGBT Americans for an elite gay athlete who will establish once and for all that gays can play the most masculine sports and win at the highest level. Making the Rams’ roster is only the first task for Sam, and many are sure to be disappointed if he ends up falling short on any number of subsequent tests. Assuming he makes the team, will Sam actually play? If he gets to play, will he be used only in special situations, as a third-down pass rusher? Will he ever become a starter? Does he have it in him to make the Football Hall of Fame? Many believe that Sam’s draft position was lower than it should have been, either because of hostility toward homosexuals or toward the “distractions” that inevitably result when the league’s coaches, who are notoriously risk-averse, sign celebrity players. With Sam, in particular, some teams may have feared that once he was drafted, he would be difficult to cut. Each side can marshal statistics and historical analogies showing that Sam’s draft was either artificially low or right on target. Sam’s side of the argument is compelling, though the conclusion that Sam deserved to be drafted in an earlier round probably imputes a higher degree of quantitative rigor to the draft than is actually justified.
The debate over whether Sam is actually a superior talent is somewhat absurd, but it merits our consideration if only to elicit sympathy for a young man whose journey is just beginning. And it may never really be over. Millions of people around the world have pinned their hopes on Sam because they want to believe he will prove that gays aren't sissies—that through his perseverance and talent, he will somehow extinguish homophobia. It's a foolhardy wish. For prejudicial temperaments impervious to fact, Sam's accomplishments may never be enough.
We should let him have his future, as storied or as obscure as it turns out to be, and instead celebrate him for the achievements he's already banked.
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