We live in a time when fame isn’t earned. It’s artificially manufactured. Fame has become self-perpetuating, self-involved, and self-aggrandizing, no real talent or societal import needed. The bar for reality television stardom is so low it requires one to lie flat on their stomach and shimmy underneath it.
So, it’s curious that Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL draft pick, would garner such finger-wagging and condemnation for originally planning to film a documentary series with the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) chronicling his attempt to make the St. Louis Rams as the NFL’s first active openly gay player.
Detractors couldn’t wait to brand Sam, who had said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February that he wanted to be seen as Michael Sam the football player, not Michael Sam the GAY football player, a hypocrite. Then the code word, distraction, got thrown around. After meeting with the Rams, Sam and OWN announced Friday that the series would be postponed.
That’s a shame because now we won’t get to bear witness to a milestone moment in professional football and American society. Other athletes have shared their personal lives on camera without the questioning of their professionalism. But somehow it’s Sam’s responsibility to expurgate his story for the comfort of others.
Should Sam have alerted NFL teams he was planning to do a docuseries? Absolutely, but it is easy to see where he would have felt like it would have been used as just another excuse not to draft him. You can do a reality show depicting and recording a moment of historical and social significance and still ask to be judged on your merits by your employer. The hypocrite here isn’t Sam. No, it’s those who say they accept Sam, but gleefully jumped on the first thing they could find to question his commitment to football and discredit his authenticity.
This has less to do with Sam upsetting the NFL caste system as a seventh-round pick with a TV show and more to do with forcing Sam, in at least one way, to conform with the macho canon of professional football. He will be allowed to be different as long as he blends into the crowd quietly.
Here’s the reality of the reality television ruckus; Sam would not have been the first and he certainly won’t be the last NFL player to embrace cinema vérité. He might not even be the only such player in his draft class.
Back in April there were reports that Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, drafted in the fifth round by the Cincinnati Bengals, was going to do a reality show with fiancee Katherine Webb.
The Denver Broncos advanced to the Super Bowl last season with reality TV star/wide receiver Eric Decker. Episodes of Decker’s reality show with his wife, country singer Jesse James — “Eric & Jesse: Game On” — ran on E! during the Broncos’ season. Somehow the Broncos overcame this grievous distraction to win 13 games and set an NFL record for points in a season (606). Decker, who signed with the New York Jets as a free agent this offseason, caught 87 balls for 1,288 yards and 11 touchdowns.
It’s less of an affront to the football establishment if you do an inane reality show with your pulchritudinous model/singer/actress significant other than if you do one about trying to break down barriers while smooching your homosexual partner.
Players preening for the cameras is hardly a new phenomenon. It was 45 years ago that Joe Namath, while playing for the New York Jets, hosted a short-lived talk show, “The Joe Namath Show”, along with legendary sportswriter Dick Schaap.
Many athletes love themselves, and television provides the ultimate mirror for their narcissism.
Terrell Owens had a reality show airing on VH1 during two seasons he was employed by NFL clubs. “The T.O. Show” first aired in the summer of 2009.
Chad Ochocinco/Johnson/Whatever filmed a reality dating show, “Ochocinco: The Ultimate Catch” that ran on VH1. Ochocinco also appeared on the reality show “Basketball Wives” when he was dating ex-wife Evelyn Lozada. Former NFL wide receiver Hank Baskett was on the eponymous reality show starring his wife Kendra Wilkinson.
Where was the outcry from the football cognoscenti and bloviating tough-guy talkers in those cases?
As they say in television infomercials, wait, there is more.
The NFL and its teams are in the reality TV business themselves with the fantastic “Hard Knocks” show. The program has shown players getting cut and traded on camera and taken us inside the inner sanctum of an NFL operation during training camp. It’s compelling television that strips away the facade of pro football.
Last October, NFL owners passed a rule that would compel one team a year to be the subject of the behind-the-scenes show because interest had waned in participating in it.
If no team volunteers, the league will select from a group of franchises that have not appeared on the show in the last 10 years, don’t have a new head coach, and haven’t made the playoffs in one of the two prior seasons.
The St. Louis Rams are among the group of eight teams meeting those stipulations that the league can conscript into reality TV duty this year.
It’s fine if the league wants to do its reality TV show, documenting the stories of players such as Sam trying to make it in the NFL. But if Sam wants to do it, then it’s an infringement on the NFL locker room culture, a burden on the Rams, an indication Sam isn’t interested in football, and, of course, say it all together now . . . a distraction. Please.
It’s a shame that Sam is not going to do the documentary series because whether he makes the Rams or not his quest could have been instructive and an experience that resonated with other athletes, homosexual or heterosexual.
Sam’s show could have been a piece of history, now it’s an opportunity fumbled away by fear.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com.