Public-relations machine muddies Sam’s story

05/15/2014 11:59 PM

06/03/2014 10:17 AM

Call it a “documentary,” like Oprah Winfrey’s people did Tuesday at a news conference in St. Louis as they asked reporters to sign waivers allowing their image to be used.

Call it a reality show, the oxymoronic concept that typically tilts toward the moronic part.

Or call it “The Untitled Michael Sam Project,” as Winfrey’s publicists did in a news release on Wednesday.

By any name, it’s a disturbing but illuminating development in the saga of Sam, the former Missouri Tiger who on Saturday became the first openly gay player to be chosen in an NFL Draft when the St. Louis Rams made him the 249th pick overall.

It’s unsettling not just because the Rams evidently weren’t aware that this massive machine already had been engaged when they drafted Sam.

And it’s distressing not just because it’s hypocritical to the mantra that Sam wants only to play football and to be treated like everyone else.

The most troubling ramification is worse than that:

Now, you can’t help but wonder how much of all this actually is about staging and posturing and the commodification of Sam … and how much say and sway he has signed away at this complicated time in his 22-year-old life as he seeks both to be an inspiration but also to just be.

It clarifies vague notions about the remarkably controlled and scripted packaging of Sam’s story from the moment it was made public through three strategically handpicked media outlets in February.

It makes it so you can’t doubt that his rare media appearances before the draft were shrewdly scheduled not so much to allow him to “focus on football” but to tightly craft his image and message, increase demand for him and lend to his mystique and, of course, enhance the appeal of selling gear on http://michaelsam.com/shop.

Surely, none of these insinuations would insult Sam’s publicist, Howard Bragman, whose “Fifteen Minutes” media and public-relations company advertises itself thusly:

“Fifteen Minutes employs an innovative client and media relations model driven by big agency thinking in a user-friendly package, multi-platform public relations and marketing capabilities, unparalleled synergy between agency divisions, and the savvy, creativity and passion of market-leading publicists and practitioners.”

That’s pretty fancy stuff, and it makes sense that Sam wanted guidance on how to handle this unique moment.

And not all of it is inherently wrong.

But something has rung inauthentic from the start about the handling of Sam, and that vibe of contrivance detracts from this important matter as much or more than it helps it.

Even those who believe in the broader cause are given pause by the insincerity in this obvious contradiction, so of course it’s problematic for those grappling with what Sam stands for.

If people are being asked to “Stand with Sam,” as the Sam paraphernalia bids, they ought to at least be able to understand what that means.

When Sam came out in February before the NFL Combine, he explained the timing as a matter of wanting “to make sure I could tell my story the way I want to tell it,” he told The New York Times. “I just want to own my truth.”

Turns out that even that was a half-truth at best, he told People magazine this week. Sam actually had wanted to wait until after the draft to break it to whichever NFL team chose him.

“When I came out in February, I did it because when I participated in the Senior Bowl, I was surprised how many people in the media knew,” Sam said. “Everyone who did an interview with me said, ‘OK, we know you’re gay, can we break the story?’ So I said OK, and I called my agent. The rest is history.”

So that part of the story has been misrepresented, and that makes it’s easy to speculate on what else is credible about the narrative and what’s been exaggerated or sterilized.

Ask yourself this, for instance: Is it really believable that there never was an iota of complication at MU after Sam came out to the team … or is that just what Sam has been coached to suggest because it would look bad to a prospective employer worried that his sexuality could create an issue in the locker room?

In fact, there were struggles there, struggles that actually tell a more important tale of growth along the way. No doubt Mizzou managed it all magnificently.

But that doesn’t fit in the varnished version of this apparently made-for-TV script.

Speaking of which: Sam’s celebratory kiss of Kansas City native Vito Camissano, and the ensuing cake thing … Spontaneous or pre-planned for impact?

If you didn’t know better, and who does but the handlers and Sam’s entourage, you might think a lot is being done for maximum effect even if you’re not supposed to pay attention to the man behind the curtain.

A reality show, you might call it, like the one on its way that counts among its producers Bragman and Sam’s agent, Joe Barkett.

“This special documentary series will feature a deeply personal, up-close look at the remarkable man at the center of this groundbreaking moment in professional sports …,” OWN said in its news release. “Cameras will follow Sam as he works to earn his spot on the St. Louis Rams all while under the intense scrutiny of being the first openly gay player in the NFL.”

Said Winfrey in an accompanying statement: “We are honored that Michael is trusting us with his private journey in this moment that has not only made history but will shape it forever … ‘The Untitled Michael Sam Project’ promises to spark valuable, important discussion on life in America today. Acceptance and illumination start here.”

Probably so, but start with this illumination:

The “intense scrutiny” is being choreographed by Sam’s own people, who are making it hard to believe what they have been saying and the way Sam is quoted in OWN’s release.

“Like every player out there working to make a team right now, my focus is on playing football to the very best of my ability ... I am thankful to Oprah for her support and excited to work together.”

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

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