Dear Michael Sam,
Please tell Oprah, “Never mind.”
Sam, the first openly gay player to be drafted into the National Football League, has signed a deal with the Oprah Winfrey Network to make a documentary out of his attempt to make the St. Louis Rams this year. In a press release, Winfrey said, “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.”
Big mistake. Common sense says the moment is so historic that Sam should focus on his craft with the laser-like focus of past athletic pioneers such as Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron in baseball, Billie Jean King in tennis, and Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the National Hockey League, who broke through with the Bruins in 1958.
Based on the public pledges of sensitivity from the NFL and the Rams, and the fact that it is not 1958, one can hope Sam will not be spit on by fans or hear homophobic epithets the way Robinson, Aaron, and O’Ree heard racial ones. But Sam will have it tough anyway, for he hardly has a guaranteed spot on the roster. He was an All-American at Missouri, but NFL scouting reports don’t project that he’ll be All-Pro caliber.
Sam’s documentary is odd, if not off-putting, because after he came out in February, he asked the media not to create a circus. He told ESPN that his sexual orientation “shouldn’t matter if I work hard, if I make plays, that’s all that should matter . . . I am a team player, I can make plays. I can help teams win games. And that’s all that should matter.”
That same month at the NFL scouting combine, Sam told reporters, “I wish you guys would just say, ‘Michael Sam, how’s football going? How’s training going?’ I wish you guys would just see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”
By signing on with OWN, Sam wants his pioneering both ways. He tells the media not to make a circus out of his rookie season because he is focused on being a team player. But then he reportedly did not tell the Rams that he wants Oprah to be the ringleader of a carnival that’s all about him.
Sensible people do not want to see Sam fail to make the NFL simply because he is openly gay. But he should remember the class displayed by his pathbreaking predecessors. Robinson and Aaron had enough hate to deal without adding fuel to the fire by boasting, “I’m black and I’m proud,” every time they crossed home plate after a home run.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.