Michael Sam and the Draw That Changed American Sports Forever

7.9.2014

By Christopher Glazek

He was the 249th NFL draft pick — that changed everything.

Even if the widespread anger over Winfrey's association is really a cover for anger about Sam’s ultra-famous kiss, it seems plausible to suggest that resentment of homosexuality and resentment of reality TV, in this instance, are mutually reinforcing. And to the extent that both resentements reflect a discomfort with exhibitionism, they might actually be different versions of the same thing.

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?

SLIDESHOW | MICHAEL SAM PHOTOS FOR OUT

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.
 

Sweatshirt by Tommy Hilfiger

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