Vahe Gregorian

Michael Sam’s publicist tries to get ahead of 'the distractions'

Updated: 2014-02-21T04:36:35Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

Believe it or not after the recent media deluge, former Mizzou All-American defensive end Michael Sam’s daring declaration that he is gay is a storyline in its embryonic phase.

The next stage in his life, the making of his career and the saga of the meaning of this unprecedented circumstance begins Friday when he reports to Indianapolis for the NFL Combine.

Like other prospective NFL players, Sam will be dissected as teams continue to gather information geared towards the May draft.

But as he seeks to become the league’s first openly gay player, Sam will have at least one unique challenge: contending for the first time since his Feb. 9 announcement with the phenomenon of a media swarm on Saturday.

The session will last 10 or 15 minutes, and Sam’s publicist, Howard Bragman, considers it an opportunity for his “telegenic, intelligent” client to charm. Sam is no “talking parrot,” Bragman said in a phone interview Thursday.

Just the same, it’s the job of Bragman, vice-president of Reputation.com, to make sure Sam is prepared.

And most sure to come up with the media, and NFL teams, he anticipates, are questions about “the distraction” Sam could cause now that he’s come out.

With that, Bragman spoke to the term that will loom large in the months to come.

To him, the word “is right up there with Richard Sherman and the word ‘thug.’ … It’s just code for low-level homophobia, frankly, and it’s a way for people to express their discomfort.”

Now, it doesn’t seem unfathomable that a team just may not want to deal with a perceived circus that could come with Sam … as opposed to not wanting to deal with Sam himself as a gay man.

Moreover, Sam didn’t come out publicly last season because he didn’t want to be a distraction to the team. So, now he wouldn’t be?

But it’s also hard to disagree with Bragman’s point.

“Distraction” is just the sort of vague concept that could be used for broad cover if a team ultimately just doesn’t want an openly gay player on its roster.

Certainly, the word seems an even trade for “baggage,” which former Chiefs coach Herm Edwards suggested on ESPN that Sam would bring.

There also doesn’t seem to be any such thing as a good distraction, and the implication is that the specter of potential distraction would supersede all else.

We’ve seen felons and fiends and bullies in the NFL. And media frenzies created by various personalities like Tim Tebow. And Manti Te’o drafted 38th overall after the bizarre girlfriend dupe was a national fixation.

So just what might be too much of a “distraction,” exactly? And how could it be that a franchise would feel incapable of handling what mostly seems to amount to some extra media demands?

It’s not like most teams don’t tightly regulate the amount of media time with high-demand players as it is, so how would this be that much more complicated?

The twist here, of course, is that the distraction element arguably was generated by Bragman, Sam and his team of representatives, including agent Joe Barkett.

They crafted the message and the timing, and they handpicked the media outlets for the most extensive reach and impact possible.

In the aftermath of the shrewd plan, Bragman has heard criticisms that this was put together so Sam could maximize endorsement offers. (They have been coming in, he said, but are under Barkett’s umbrella.)

Bragman, who has helped cultivate the comings-out of numerous Hollywood figures, dismissed that notion, saying, “Nobody’s looking for the quick buck here.”

And he makes persuasive cases for why it not only was vital for Sam but meaningful beyond him.

“We have (openly) gay people in every level of society, every walk of life, except sports, which is statistically almost impossible,” he said. “And of all the sports, football is kind of America’s sport, and where America’s toughest gladiators play. ...

“The research talks a lot about ‘theoretical gay people’ vs. gay people that people know. And that’s where it all changes. If you know somebody and you already like them and are inclined towards positive feelings, you’re going to be much more accepting than the theoretical concept of someone you didn’t know. …

“They used to keep gay people down by making us invisible. And when you didn’t see gay people, they were inevitably portrayed negatively in TV and film. And now this is what I call the ‘Will and Grace’ generation.

“These kids grow up watching ‘Will and Grace’ and ‘Modern Family,’ and they understand diversity in a way that their parents’ generation don’t understand diversity. And it’s very matter-of-fact for them, and I think that’s a huge step.”

Meanwhile, he said, Sam’s visibility and likability give him potential to “change hearts and minds.”

As for why it was imperative now for Sam?

Even though many pro scouts already knew, Bragman said, the concept still was to own the message and not be outed. And while making it universally known before the Combine had its risks, it would give teams a chance to absorb it, too.

“I don’t care who you tell: your employer or your family, most people are not a light switch where they just go, ‘Oh, OK,’ ” he said, noting the potential consequences if it didn’t happen until after the draft: “Now this team’s stuck with you, and maybe they didn’t want you. I understand that, Michael and his team understand that.

“We had to get ahead of this story.”

And now they hope to keep a rein on it to minimize distractions, in more ways than one.

“The world’s divided into what Michael can control and what Michael can’t control,” Bragman said. “What he can’t control is when he’s drafted, who drafts him, all these questions that remain out there.

“What he can control is his physical preparation and his attitude, and … I can tell you, Michael is the least distracted in this whole process.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow on Twitter.com/vgregorian

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