It took two days for the National Football League to squash the Untitled Michael Sam Project, a reality-TV show that would have starred the first openly gay rookie as he tried to earn a spot on a professional roster.
The Oprah Winfrey Network announced last week that it would air a “multi-part documentary series” about Sam, the newly drafted defensive end for the St. Louis Rams. His agent, Cameron Weiss, spent the next 48 hours fielding questions about whether the Rams knew about the show before they selected Sam, whether the show would have access to team training facilities over the summer, and whether Sam had committed the cardinal sports sin of creating a “distraction.”
By Friday evening, the network and the sports agent had to back away from the show—Untitled Michael Sam had been postponed indefinitely.
OWN president Erik Logan said the move came after “careful consideration and discussion with the St. Louis Rams.” In other words, the team and league didn’t want the show to happen. The NFL maintains it didn’t know about the show before the Rams selected Sam with 249th pick of this year’s draft. ”We learned of this in the days after the draft,” NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told ESPN. On Bloomberg TV the day before, Weiss said that he had been “in communication with the league office prior to the draft and for several weeks now about the documentary.” Weiss declined to comment on the discrepancy during a phone interview on Monday morning.
All parties agree that OWN’s cameras were never going near the Rams locker room or practice facilities. The NFL guards these borders carefully, granting exclusive access to HBO’s Hard Knocks series, which provides behind-the-scenes footage for only one team each off-season. Even so, the Rams clearly viewed the show as unwanted attention. “After today’s meeting with the Rams,” Weiss said in a statement on Friday, “we collectively feel it is best to postpone the project. This will allow for Michael to have a total focus on football, and will ensure no distractions to his teammates.”
“Distraction” is the a catch-all for behavior coaches, sports columnists, and talk-radio blowhards don’t like. “I want it to be removed from Webster’s,” Weiss says of the word on Monday. Part of Sam’s misstep was getting above his appointed place in the league pecking order. According to the unwritten rules, a 249th draft pick doesn’t get his own show—just try asking 248th pick Ahmad Dixon about his TV offers.
The intense interest in Sam, of course, springs from his status as a pioneer in the league. But whenever a gap opens between a player’s fame and his on-field accomplishments, teams tend to push back. The Cleveland Browns told Johnny Manziel, the only draft pick selling more jerseys than Sam, to start acting a “like a back-up quarterback.”
The general idea is to try keep resentments from building in the locker room and to make fuddy-duddies in the fan base feel good. In this case, however, the league could be doing Sam a favor. Since he came out in February, the defensive end has insisted his focus is on football. “I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player, instead of Michael Sam the gay football player,” he told reporters at the NFL combine. This is a reasonable request—and one that will be consistently ignored. Sam’s status as the league’s first openly gay player will come with built-in scrutiny, and OWN’s cameras would only have made the situation more extraordinary.
“Mike is a very polarizing figure. Anything he does is going to be under the microscope,” Weiss told me on Monday. “Anything we can do as his team to seal him from that heightened scrutiny and from that becoming a discussion in the locker room amongst his teammates, then that’s what we have to do.” Before OWN announced the show, the agent says he believed it could be done without an undue burden on Sam. The intensity of the immediate response changed his mind, but he and the team now have “a great plan going forward on Mike’s availability.”
The shame of this is that Sam, for now anyway, is being denied some of the upside of all the scrutiny. He is about to begin a career that, on average, lasts somewhere between three and six years. During that time he will experience daily, debilitating violence. As a matter of prudence, he should take just about any offer that comes his way. That’s what any player would do.