In May, Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted into the National Football League as a seventh-round pick of the St. Louis Rams. Unsurprisingly, since then, Sam has drawn plenty of media scrutiny -- some of it thoughtful, much of it less so. On Tuesday, ESPN aired a report on Sam’s showering habits with his teammates that fell into the latter category.
A charitable description of ESPN’s report would be to compare it to the scene in the Jackie Robinson biopic “42” in which Robinson, the first African American player in Major League Baseball, refrains from showering with his white teammates so as to avoid making them uncomfortable.
That film, however, was made with the benefit of 60-plus years of hindsight. The scene worked because the idea of white angst over interracial showering is ridiculous to us now. The scene was a time capsule intent on showing how far we’d come as a nation in such a short time. ESPN’s instant reporting on Sam’s showering habits, on the other hand, felt creepy and exploitative.
On Wednesday, the network was forced to release an apology:
“ESPN regrets the manner in which we presented our report. Clearly on Tuesday we collectively failed to meet the standards we have set in reporting on LGBT-related topics in sports.”
Much like Jackie Robinson, Sam is helping to break down barriers. But, unlike Robinson, it should be noted that Sam isn’t standing alone in that fight. There have been gay NFL players before. Former NFL running back David Kopay came out as gay after his retirement all the way back in 1975. Last year, then-NFL linebacker and LGBT activist Brendon Ayanbadejo announced that there were at least four gay players in the NFL who were considering coming out.
What’s different about Sam is that the media is now aware of his sexuality. And it is the media that now bears the greatest scrutiny for its handling of Sam -- not the NFL and its players. It is the media that can do the most damage to Sam and to everything he represents.
That’s not to say there isn’t a danger of Sam being mistreated on the ground. The NFL culture of hyper-masculinity is well-documented, and plenty of its players have made unfortunate, homophobic public comments in the past. Like Robinson before him, Sam very well may face bigotry from his opponents, fans or even his own teammates.
And should those unfortunate scenarios arise, it is the duty of the media to report on them. But wouldn’t it be nice if, until that happens (which hopefully it doesn’t), we could just leave Sam alone and let the man play?
Sam’s story deserves to be heard -- and has been told thoughtfully and sensitively already by a number of outlets -- including ESPN, which quite rightly aired a beautiful celebratory kiss between Sam and his boyfriend Vito Cammisano after Sam learned he had been drafted into the NFL. Overzealous coverage, on the other hand, is doing the man, and the LGBT community, a disservice. We know Sam’s backstory. It’s time to back off a little and let history unfold. Let’s let him play.
Matthew Fleischer is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @MatteFleischer.
Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion