Photo: Brandon Wade/Associated Press
Michael Sam says he cares about nothing other than playing football. He says he wants to be judged only for what he does on the field and that little else about him should matter, that his sexual orientation may be part of who he is but it's certainly not all he is -- and it's definitely not what he wants to be the focus of people's attention as he makes history by entering the NFL. That's impossible at face value, of course, because the entire reason his entry into the NFL is historic is that he's the league's first openly gay player. He deserves plaudits in abundance for choosing to show the world exactly who he is, providing a role model millions will look to for years to come, and the St. Louis Rams deserve equal praise for being the team willing to give him the chance to let us all see what he's made of. If Sam is as good and as dedicated as he seems, the Rams' investment in him will pay off for them hugely.
But it turns out Michael Sam may be putting an unnecessary burden on himself and his team before the season even begins and it's one he's chosen to take on and that flies in the face of his claim that it's all about the football for him. According to TMZ today, the story of Sam's first year in the NFL will be documented for a new reality TV show for Oprah's OWN channel. (It's really impossible to say that out loud, the name of Oprah's network and how it so perfectly sums up everything about her, and not chuckle to yourself a little.) In fact, the company behind the recent Lindsay Lohan trainwreck for OWN will be producing it and its cameras are apparently already following Sam and have been for weeks. They were there, the report claims, when Michael Sam kissed his boyfriend and rubbed cake in his face after learning that he'd been drafted. The presence of a reality TV crew in no way makes that moment offensive or the show-of-affection icky, as some conservatives have raged, but it does mean that it was specifically produced, as almost anything that happens on reality TV is these days. The "drama" was at least somewhat engineered. I speak from experience on this.
The problem is that Michael Sam is going to have enough pressure on him as it is as a first-year defensive end for an NFL team; he may be making history but he'll rise and fall based solely on his performance on the field. The Rams really can't afford to think of him in any terms other than how he plays, regardless of the fact that they'll be in difficult position should they feel they need to cut him. Whether Sam knows or truly appreciates it, a TV crew following him around is an intrusion and a distraction -- and he needs neither right now. What's more, if Oprah chooses to make herself part of the Sam story -- as she has in the past with every single cultural, artistic, or intellectual property she's ever touched or touted -- that presents an even bigger potential problem for all involved. Oprah doesn't tread lightly. If she makes Sam her "OWN" -- so to speak -- and chronicles his life in the NFL as it's happening, with the show airing concurrent with the season, then he becomes a football player second and an Oprah-approved reality show star first at a time when he should be thinking about little besides how he plays (at least if he wants to continue playing beyond his inaugural year).
In many ways, Michael Sam is already going to be a reality show star. He'll be a star on one of the best reality shows on television, airing every Sunday beginning in September. Regardless of her clout and the big payday she's no doubt promising, he should drop Oprah.