Thoughts on Michael Sam and the Media

I assume anyone reading this has not been living under the proverbial rock, so there's no need for me to explain who Michael Sam is and why he's a big deal.

But what I've found interesting is the reaction, mostly negative, to Sports Illustrated's coverage of NFL front office reaction to Sam coming out. One such piece is from Stefan Fatsis, a writer I greatly admire. I'll take Fatsis any day in a sportswriter fantasy league over Peter King, whom Fatsis is compelling me to defend. Shudder.

Fatsis' main beef of SI is a lack of sample size, lack of gravitas among those that were interviewed, and using anonymous sources. SI anonymously interviewed mid-level front office types and scouts, and one former GM. They all thought Sam's draft stock would drop with the announcement, pretty much all chirped that the media circus that might surround Sam would be too much of a distraction, and gave themselves plausible deniability (get ready for tons more of that in the weeks and months to come) that Sam is an overrated player anyway.

Fatsis: "That's a bunch of second-tier personnel and coaching staffers, and one guy who isn't in the league anymore. Not a single one of those people will make the final call on whether to draft Michael Sam, and they may not have any meaningful influence at all. But Thamel and Evans drew some very big conclusions from their comments. It's not only possible but likely that, again, not a single one of those assertions will come to pass. But with its first-out-of-the-gate story, SI helped shift, or at least bifurcate, the conversation."

I hate to break it to Fatsis, but it is indeed pretty likely that those assertions will come to pass. It's an odd argument that Fatsis is making. That because these guys aren't final-decision makers, there's no reason to put any stock in what they say.

What reason do we have to believe the people who do make the final decisions feel any differently? These are all homeboys. I don't think you'll find too many odd-couple pairings among NFL coaching staffs and front offices. They are echo chambers. If anything, team owners and coaches are even more likely to either a) be unwilling to rock the current culture boat as they perceive it, b) have anti-gay sentiments in their own right, or c) both.

Fatsis then pilloried SI, and especially Peter King, for getting all their comments anonymously. In King's case, he granted his sources anonymity upfront.

"If his sources had spoken on the record and said something mealy-mouthed or had outright lied, King would have performed a journalistic service far greater than letting them shiv Michael Sam in his pursuit of "the truth."

What?! "Something mealy-mouthed or outright lies" is exactly what would have happened if King had spoken to these people on the record. That would have been the opposite of doing Michael Sam a service. He deserves to know what he's up against. Fatsis puts "the truth" in quotes. In the piece, he gives more stock to meaningless platitudes stated on-the-record than what people are saying off of it. It all makes Fatsis seem naive.

"Moreover, by offering anonymity, King, Thamel, and Evans were actually encouraging their sources to talk smack about Sam."

True, and we agree that talking smack is bad, but I don't even think Fatsis is suggesting these sources weren't saying what they feel. ("Oh wow. SI is letting me speak anonymously. I think Sam is a great football player and I think having an openly gay player is an important harbinger of progress, but I'm gonna piss on him instead. Anonymity compels me.")

Of course it's better to have an idea of what NFL power brokers really think rather than what they're willing to say to the cameras. To suggest otherwise is bizarre.

"If both reporter and source were convinced that anything but a politically correct opinion would be pilloried, and therefore anonymity was essential for any conversation to occur, that set some pretty low expectations for the thought capacity of NFL executives."

NFL Executives have richly earned their small-minded reputation.

"Maybe King's cynical "guarantee" is correct, and [the coaches and owners who have expressed support for Sam] words are in fact sugarcoated and meaningless."

They are sugarcoated and meaningless until one of these guys actually drafts Sam.

"NFL clubs are pragmatic, but they're not uniformly retrograde. Owners have different priorities than scouts and personnel assistants. They want to win, but they can see the arc of history bending, too."

They are something close to uniformly retrograde. Unlike Fatsis' rose-colored assessment, I'm not sure there's a Branch Rickey in the lot. He's basically asking — counting on — the heroes of progress to come from the kingmakers of the NFL, which is a bit like setting up Sam Walton as the next hero of the working class.

The narrative I keep seeing on Twitter and elsewhere that, when it comes to the NFL, it's not the players who are the problem, it's the coaches and front offices. It makes sense that a bunch of 50-something white dudes would have a harder time accepting gay players than 20-something teammates (and by all accounts, Sam was completely accepted at Missouri). Fatsis' piece is an off-base rebuttal to that seemingly obvious observation.

But yes, owners and coaches toe the politically correct line (which is why they are already so quick to bash the SEC Defensive Player of the Year on football grounds), and that may be what forces the sea change most of us want to see in the NFL and society at large. The issue with Sam (and Jason Collins) is that they came out while they were not under contract. It's either going to take a player who is under contract, or one so talented that his skill cannot be plausibly denied, to change that. I hope I'm wrong, but I'd say it's at least even money that Sam does not play a down in the NFL in 2014.

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