When he came out, he told the NYT, “I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the N.F.L.”
And, he forgot to mention, become a reality-show star for Oprah.
“We are honored that Michael is trusting us with his private journey in this moment that has not only made history but will shape it forever,” Winfrey said in a statement. “I am proud of the focus on authentic storytelling in our new documentary series format. The next real-life story we follow in The Untitled Michael Sam Project promises to spark valuable, important discussion on life in America today. Acceptance and illumination start here.”
Sam added: “Like every player out there working to make a team right now, my focus is on playing football to the very best of my ability. I am determined. And if seeing my story helps somebody else accept who they are and to go for their dreams too, that’s great. I am thankful to Oprah for her support and excited to work together.”
Baffling, although you can anticipate his defenses before you criticize him. One of them’s right there in the excerpt — he’s doing this, he says, as an inspiration to others, more of a PSA to empower gays than a means of self-promotion. Why kicking ass on the field and doing the occasional interview isn’t sufficient inspiration is unclear, but no one’s going to win a “you’re overdoing it” argument with a guy who’s doing something in pro sports that no one’s done before. Self-promotion will be treated as promotion for the cause of gay rights, with no exceptions.
Another obvious defense: Plenty of straight pro athletes participate in reality shows, so why hold Sam to a double standard? He can’t let viewers play voyeur but Lamar Odom can spend years orbiting the Kardashian freak show on camera without much static? The answer to that one, of course, is that normalization is a priority for Sam in a way that it isn’t for any other pro athlete. Part of the reason he came out, presumably, was to show that gays are just like everyone else, even when “everyone else” is composed of world-class athletes in America’s most macho sport. I expected him to keep a low profile in the league at first and take a strict “judge me for what I do on the field” attitude to make that point clear — but then, it’s stupid for anyone to set expectations for a guy who’s defied them already in such a dramatic way. What you’re seeing here really is tension between two different strategies for majority acceptance of minorities, the “we’re just like you” approach versus the “we’re different and you should respect that” approach. Historically, the former usually comes first and evolves over time towards the latter, but the reality show makes me think that Sam’s already moving towards the second one. It may not work out that way — the show may end up being all about how similar his off-field life is to the average straight fan’s, which would be more like the first approach — but it’ll be hard to escape that conclusion given that the reason he has a show before playing so much as a down in the NFL is because he’s different.
But maybe I’m misjudging. Maybe, after 10 years of Americans liberalizing on gay marriage, most of the country has already internalized the “we’re just like you” message from gays and therefore Sam can proceed directly to “I’m different and that’s okay.” And hey — as a seventh-round pick who’s unlikely to see much playing time, it’s probably in his interest to build his public profile around his celebrity rather than his on-field activity. Sam the player is unlikely to be remembered but Sam the trailblazer is safely famous forever.