Of the four major American sports, the NFL has the bitchiest and most territorial media, who arrogate for themselves certain rights of access that they decry when granted to someone outside the fraternity. They're dogs who snarl when the cat takes their place on the owner's lap.
So, it wasn't shocking to the see their quick turnabout on Michael Sam. Saturday, NFL reporters melted over his genuine and genuinely touching display of emotion, only to change their tune a few days later when it was revealed Sam would be participating in a documentary on his journey to make the St. Louis Rams.
I don't agree with my colleague Drew Magary that this represents some breach of the public's faith in Sam—part of his coming-out is getting to choose the terms of his own celebrity—but at least Drew's argument was premised on reasonable assumptions about the truthiness and brand-building nature of reality TV. That's not what got the NFL media worked up, however. Here's Peter King, for instance:
Chris Kluwe came in to defend Michael Sam.
And there it was again: distraction. Bill James once called this sort of imprecision a "bullshit dump"—a way of reconciling our deficient logic to some innate sense of right and wrong. The NFL media don't like the idea of a player having independent control of his public image, and so, in order to justify their distaste, they—the professional purveyors of image, the bards of the sideshow—invent the vague, question-begging category of sin known as "causing a distraction."
The fact that King's doing the bitching here tells you what it's really about. It's not a principled stance about giving too much access to the media; it's about giving access to the wrong kind of media. After all, King has built a career—and his own website, the MMQB—on access. Because he doesn't bust the league's balls, he has doors opened for him—like last year, when he was allowed to sit in the Rams' war room as the draft unfolded. (Presumably, he did not reckon his presence a distraction.)
King doesn't seem to worry that his own website might be a distraction for defensive end Austen Lane, when Lane fills in for his column on the MMQB. Or for Richard Sherman, who contributed multiple pieces during Seattle's playoff run this past season, the most notable being one published a day after his infamous NFC championship interview. Or for Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin, who put together a diary on the day of the Super Bowl for MMQB. Somehow, none of those players saw sharp drops in performance when they worked the media, and somehow, none of them were accused of creating a sideshow.
NFL reporter Albert Breer also voiced some similar thoughts:
There's a misdemeanor hypocrisy in Sam claiming he wants to be just another football player while securing a reality show or documentary about his efforts. But there's more than a little disingenuousness, too, in the media pretending to take the former at face value but then swarming the seventh-round pick's press conference. (Also, the assurance from Sam's camp that this was entirely about football was plainly a tactical concession, designed not to rile the homophobes who worry that the Rams' locker room is about to erupt into a pride parade.) It's almost as if Sam isn't just another football player.
Somehow, Darren Rovell became a mildly reasonable voice in the hurricane of concern-trolling, pointing out that the documentary would not be filming Sam at any part of the Rams' camps.
And Josina Anderson's report, which used Rovell's info—along with a concerned anonymous teammate—explained that the documentary crew wouldn't get any access "beyond what the normal media has." In short, the NFL media are concerned that Michael Sam will be distracted by media that aren't them, and that he's getting paid for it.
This isn't an NFL-exclusive issue, but it's prevalent there in part because the football media have historically been a courtier press, friendly to the league and its interests and receiving favorable treatment in return. Various outlets thrive on inside access—mic'd up players, first-person essays, etc.—until a player dares to open up somewhere that isn't within the usual circle. Then, his dedication to the game is questioned. Then, he's creating distractions. How serious can he be about football if he's whoring himself out to a TV show, wonders someone on ESPN. Gosh, something smells, says the fart.
The irony is that, in this narrow regard, Michael Sam is being treated like any other player, forced to deal with the same kind of bullshit that fellow rookie A.J. McCarron got over his possible involvement in an actual reality show. We create the celebrities around here, the NFL media seems to be telling him. No savoring the trail you've blazed, bud. Work until you're either on the squad or off of our headlines. But before you go, can you give us a quote on which of your new teammates talked to you after you got drafted? Got any phone calls yet? Texts? What'd they say?