‘NFL‘ athlete Michael Sam finds a friend in ‘Out’ magazine this year, teaming up with the LGBTQ publication for a spread which sought to shed light on his life since he revealed that he was gay.
Unveiled before the arrival of ‘OWN’ Reality TV series, Sam’s time with the outlet brought with it talk of the NFL’s response to him since his “outing” and the media’s response to the kiss he shared with boyfriend Vito Cammisano after he was drafted on-camera.
Snaps and quotes below…
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).
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 Knockson 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.”
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.”
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.