Originally published in slightly different form in the August issue of Out Magazine. Reprinted here with permission.
Michael Sam, the first openly gay player drafted into the National Football League, is a big fucking deal. This fact alarms many people — not least Sam himself, who mistrusts the media and who expressed skepticism, the day I met him in New York, that his coming out was really an act of courage, as nearly everyone has proclaimed.
Other facts about Sam have also caused alarm: that he stands at only 6-feet-1-and-a-half-inches, more than two inches shorter than the average NFL defensive end; and that, despite having been voted the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the year, Sam was drafted 249th out of 256, the lowest pick—by 100 spots—in the history of the award. Some are bothered by the fact that just seconds after his draft, Sam gave his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, the most famous gay kiss of all time; others find it troubling that Sam is already enjoying the perks of professional stardom, including an award from ESPN and a lucrative deal with Visa, despite never having played a minute of professional football. And still others are angered by the fact that Sam has been the victim of an apparent double standard, wherein high-profile draftees like Johnny Manziel—white, rich, and straight—are celebrated for racking up endorsements and Instagramming themselves holding fistfuls of cash while Sam, who grew up in extreme poverty and has turned down countless sponsorship deals, is being savaged for the small steps he's taken to capitalize on something that, despite his protestations, really is a huge deal: that the NFL, the richest sports league in history and the most macho show on earth, has drafted someone who is gay.
The extent of Sam's courage was revealed by the events that followed his coming out. After declaring his orientation in an interview with ESPN, Sam immediately fell 70 spots on the CBS draft board, withstood online abuse from NFL players and team managers, attracted protests from the Westboro Baptist Church, and inspired a Republican lobbyist to pursue legislation banning gay athletes from professional football. Worst of all, he had to read disapproving comments from his own father, who told The New York Times that Deacon Jones, the legendary defensive lineman, would be "turning over in his grave" at the thought of a gay player in the NFL. Somewhat counteracting the negativity were the notes of encouragement Sam received from the likes of President Barack Obama, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and football hall of famers such as Deion Sanders. None of them was a draft scout, though.
An integrated NFL isn't the only "big deal" LGBT Americans have had the good fortune to celebrate in recent years, but for a community suffering from milestone fatigue, Sam's announcement was significant—more significant, perhaps, than corresponding announcements from Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers because of football's special relationship with American masculinity. Of all the major sports, football has the highest level of body contact and the highest risk of injury. Perhaps because of the inherent closeness of the game—and the intensity of the homosocial bonds required to build a successful team—it has also been the sport where sexuality has been the most ferociously policed. Before Sam's announcement, many gays took it for granted that the NFL, whose brand is powered by manliness and violence, was the most hostile terrain of all. In January, Chris Kluwe, a former kicker for the Minnesota Vikings who believes he was fired for speaking publicly in favor of marriage equality, published a piece on Deadspin in which he quoted a Vikings special teams coach as having said, "We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and nuke it until it glows." (The coach initially disputed this account but later gave in, saying the comment was a "joke between three people, three men.") In February, just days after Sam came out, the NFL released a report about bullying in the Miami Dolphins locker room that detailed a widespread culture of antigay humiliation. For its potential to frustrate homophobic expectations and extend the boundaries of American masculinity, ending "don't ask, don't tell" in the NFL could be an event nearly as significant as integrating the military.
While making history in the NFL, Sam has concurrently joined an elite club: the minuscule 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 Knocks on 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."
On May 6, two days before the NFL draft, I flew to New York to meet Sam. I had never been as anxious for an interview. I was nervous for myself—would I get him to open up to me, a bookish ectomorph half his size? I was also nervous for him. As judgment day approached, the sports blogosphere had started to turn against Sam, and a new conventional wisdom was taking hold: Sam might not get drafted at all. Our interview would take place hours before one of the most consequential, nerve-wracking moments of his life. Would he trust me?
Our plan was to meet in Chelsea at the studio of photographer Richard Phibbs, who was shooting Sam for Out's cover, then walk together to a nearby hotel. When I entered the studio, I saw a cluster of gay men huddled around Sam, who was naked from the waist up and holding a football as if he were a Greek god wielding a thunderbolt. The men were flirting. "Show me—is this the way you throw a ball?" one man asked, pantomiming a pass. "It's more like this," Sam responded, adhering to the script of the high school mating ritual. He then executed a mock throw whose subtleties impressed the gathered fans but transcended my understanding. Madonna's "Candy Shop" then came over the speakers, and the group dispersed to take their positions while Sam suited up in shoulder pads and a jersey. Standing tall, broad, and somber in front of a black screen, Sam did not look happy, but he did look fabulous.
When I scanned the room, I was startled to recognize director Amy Rice, a Winfrey hand famous for sparring with Lindsay Lohan on the OWN docuseries Lindsay. An obsessive Lohan fan, I rushed to introduce myself. After I explained why I was there, Rice handed me a release. Hadn't anyone told me? The network was planning on filming my interview with Sam. As soon as I signed the form, though, Sam's publicist quashed the idea. Sam was not in a good mood—he could barely be persuaded to do the interview at all, let alone on camera.
The first 15 minutes of the interview were excruciating. Sam refused to make eye contact with me. His answers were curt and nonrevealing. What was college like? "It's a normal school." How did you like living in Columbia, Mo.? "It's a normal town." He delivered his responses as rebuttals, swatting away my questions as if blocking kicks from a tedious adversary. He seemed especially determined to keep a lid on any details regarding his relationship with Cammisano. Do you go on dates? "Yeah, we date." What do you like to do together? "We do what people who date do." I was starting to understand why he won defensive player of the year. The only information he volunteered was that he felt annoyed that the photo shoot had run over and thrown off his schedule. "I don't like when the plan changes," he huffed.
Desperate to turn things around, I started talking about myself and mentioned visiting a boyfriend in upstate New York. Suddenly Sam's head perked up; for the first time, he looked me in the eyes. "Wait—you're gay?" I wasn't sure how this could have been unclear. "Uh, yes," I replied, wondering how he was going to take the news. "Oh!" he blurted, his voice rising five octaves. "And Aaron [Hicklin, Out's editor in chief]? Is he gay, too?" I nodded. His face melted into a smile; he inched his chair closer to the table and loosened the furrow in his brow. "I thought you guys were straight! That's why I was giving you a hard time." His eyes, which had glared with impermeability all through the shoot, suddenly started to radiate warmth and comradeship. Sam's metamorphosis was so sudden and cartoonish, it suggested how much energy he was having to expend to protect his sexual orientation from people he feared would use it against him.
Whereas before Sam had refused to discuss his relationship, now he was busting out his phone and showing me pictures of his treasured man. I had seen some images of Cammisano online, but these were better. "Very cute!" I exclaimed. He was clearly used to such compliments, and clearly gratified by them. He responded, "Thank you, thank you," in a practiced tone that reminded me of a politician trying to quell applause before launching into a speech. "I'm sorry about before—I just thought you were some reporter after a story. Some of those guys are vultures." Sam may not have an effective gaydar, but he had a keenly developed sense of kinship. His entire adult life had been dominated by teams and, evidently, a binary vision of friend or foe. All it took was the word "boyfriend" for him to switch from lion to lamb, and to become not only cooperative but downright solicitous. "Have you still not gotten your tea?" he fretted. I hadn't. He hounded the waiter and obtained my tea, but he was still worried. "Are you sure you don't want lemon and honey?" He was a strong advocate of lemon and honey.
He then launched into his life story, skipping over the bad parts. His journey to the NFL started in the seventh grade, when his father, a long-haul truck driver who had moved to Dallas, prevailed upon his mother, a Jehovah's Witness, to let Sam participate in school sports (Jehovah's Witnesses are forbidden from playing sports or doing anything that requires consorting with nonbelievers, such as sitting on juries and donating blood). In the beginning, he was just a water boy. By the time he entered high school, though, he was a starter on his school's varsity squad. ("I kind of stood out from most of my teammates," he later wrote in an email. "I started getting letters and visits from scouts and coaches from schools all over the place.") At that point, he had no illusions about the NFL—he was just trying to get to college, something no one in his family had ever done.
After high school, Sam accepted a scholarship to play football at the University of Missouri. Though he was only a two-star recruit, his talent grew over his four years at Mizzou, as it's affectionately known, and in his senior year he was unanimously voted a first-team All-American. "That was my goal all through college," he said—it was the honor he was proudest of. All-Americans at Mizzou get their portraits painted, Sam explained, and he pulled out his phone again to show me his portrait. "When I first saw it I just stared at it for a while. That was my goal, and I achieved it." Sam's signature move as a Mizzou defensive end was executing an outside rush around an opposing offensive tackle. He was also known for his fondness for singing during practice. "I'd sing Madonna, Marvin Gaye—whatever came into my mind," he said. "My coaches got used to it over time. They'd say, 'That's just Michael Sam.' "
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."
Sam came out to the Missouri Tigers during their minicamp in August 2013, kicking off a winning season in which the team finished 12-2 and Sam claimed 11.5 sacks. "When I got up there in front of my team, it was actually the first time I said the words to anyone: 'I am gay.' " Although he was nervous, his teammates were supportive. "Mizzou is a family," Sam told me. "At another school, it might have been a different story."
Around the same time that Sam was coming out to his team, he received an email from Empire Athletes, a new sports agency out of Santa Monica. The agency's directors, Joe Barkett and Cameron Weiss, were interested in signing Sam and wooed him over the course of several months. They had read rumors that Sam was gay but dismissed them after meeting with Sam in person. "There's no way this guy isn't straight," Barkett told Weiss. Eventually, Sam told them he was going with another agency. Several days, later, though, Barkett got a call from Sam. "I thought it was a butt dial at first," Barkett told me. Sam said he had made a mistake, that he wanted to sign with Empire, and that he had deleted every other agent's number except for theirs. He also had something he needed to talk about with them. "He said, 'Tell me something about myself,' and gave me three guesses," said Barkett. Barkett recited biographical facts, including awards Sam had won and details about his childhood. "Eventually Mike decided no amount of guessing was going to get there," said Weiss. "Then he told us he was gay." Sam's sexuality didn't make a difference to the agents. "I thought it was cool to represent Michael Sam, SEC defensive player of the year," Weiss told me. "I had thought about it before, what it would be like to represent the first openly gay athlete. I looked at it as a really positive thing."
The first major decision confronting Sam and his agents was when to come out. They considered three options: before the draft, after the draft, or after making a roster. Their decision was helped along by the media, who had caught wind of Sam's sexuality and who were desperate to get on the ground floor of what they knew would be a huge story. "There were writers from national magazines who admitted they had come to the Senior Bowl just for Mike," Weiss said. "There was one writer for a prominent publication who was so nervous about broaching the subject that he danced around the issue and never actually brought it up. He said, 'I want to help you, I want to tell your story, I want to introduce you to Jason Collins.' At that point we knew what he was saying. He was so nervous he was physically shaking."
To coordinate the coming out, they knew they would need a publicist. "We vetted damn near 75 publicists," Weiss told me. They eventually settled on Howard Bragman, a prominent figure in the PR world, who appeared regularly on television and had helped take other professional athletes out of the closet, like former NBA center John Amaechi and three-time WNBA MVP Sheryl Swoopes. The strategy was to do a limited number of interviews with trusted media outlets that were "beacons in their field" and to try and keep the focus on football. Bragman decided the best approach was to simultaneously do a print interview with the Times and a televised interview with ESPN. Sam gave a strong performance on TV, ending with the declaration: "I'm not afraid of who I am. I'm Michael Sam. I'm a college graduate, I'm African American, and I'm gay."
They made the announcement two weeks before the NFL scouting combine, a high-stakes body-profiling ritual in which draft prospects are subjected to a range of physical tests, from bench press to vertical leap. "The combine is a job interview," Sam said, before acknowledging that his interview didn't go very well. "It just wasn't my day." His vertical was 25.5 inches, better than only three others, and he managed 17 reps on the 225-pound bench press, worse than every player but one. Following the combine, Sam's draft prospects sank. He went from a projected second- or third-round pick to a projected seventh-rounder at risk of falling out of the draft altogether. Sam's agents believe the media attention following his announcement contributed to Sam's poor performance. "The circus took it toll on Mike physically and mentally," Weiss told me. "It was a lot for anyone to deal with."
Just as we were getting to the good stuff back at the hotel, a pert, well-groomed woman came to our table. "I'm sorry to interrupt," she said. "I'm from Visa. I need to take Michael now for the recording." I didn't realize it would be the last time Sam and I would speak.
Four days after what was supposed to be the first of several interviews with Out, Michael Sam was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. Seconds after the announcement, ESPN filmed him celebrating the moment with a passionate kiss that has since been viewed millions of times around the world. Three days later, he gave a joint press conference with Rams coach Jeff Fisher stating that his focus moving forward would be exclusively on football.
The next day, the Oprah Winfrey Network announced it was filming a series about Sam, directed by Amy Rice, which blindsided the Rams and caused the sports world to erupt with criticism. Two days after that, OWN announced the series was being put on hold, and Sam went into a media freeze in order to focus on making the Rams' 53-man roster. On June 12, Sam made the team, signing a four-year contract worth more than two and a half million dollars.
Over the past four months, as Sam's fortunes have swung from the giddiest highs to the most deflating lows, he has been freighted with inordinate expectations from all quarters. To satisfy his skeptics, he has had to clear an ever-expanding set of personal and professional hurdles: In effect, he has had to walk prouder, play harder, earn less, and allow himself to be fumbled around as the media's football in a way unknown to the vast majority of his comparatively anonymous peers.
Sam's supporters have been nearly as unreasonable. Despite the achievements of figures like Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers, there is still a yearning among LGBT Americans for an elite gay athlete who will establish once and for all that gays can play the most masculine sports and win at the highest level. Making the Rams' roster is only the first task for Sam, and many are sure to be disappointed if he ends up falling short on any number of subsequent tests. Assuming he makes the team, will Sam actually play? If he gets to play, will he be used only in special situations, as a third-down pass rusher? Will he ever become a starter? Does he have it in him to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Many believe that Sam's draft position was lower than it should have been, either because of hostility toward homosexuals or toward the "distractions" that inevitably result when the league's coaches, who are notoriously risk-averse, sign celebrity players.
With Sam, in particular, some teams may have feared that once he was drafted, he would be difficult to cut. Each side can marshal statistics and historical analogies showing that Sam's draft was either artificially low or right on target. Sam's side of the argument is compelling, though the conclusion that Sam deserved to be drafted in an earlier round probably imputes a higher degree of quantitative rigor to the draft than is actually justified.
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.