Michael Sam: First a Football Player

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Posted: February 12, 2014, 2:40 p.m.
by Shannon Auvil.

On Feb. 9, 2014, University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam revealed that he is gay via a breaking article in The New York Times. Sam was named Defensive Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference and helped the Mizzou Tigers to a 12-2 record and the SEC Championship this past season. He is expected to be picked in the later rounds of the NFL draft.

If drafted, Sam will be the first openly gay player in the NFL.

Sam’s announcement was orchestrated by Howard Bragman, founder and chairman of Fifteen Minutes, a media and public relations company based in Los Angeles. Bragman has a history of assisting other athletes, such as Esera Tuaolo, Sheryl Swoopes and John Amaechi, manage the media attention that follows coming out.

Sam came out to his teammates and the Mizzou coaching staff in August 2013. While support was plenty from the Mizzou community, Sam didn’t want anyone telling his story before he got the chance to do it himself.

Sam’s agent Joe Barkett hired Bragman to run the show, and Bragman brought NYT and ESPN into the mix. These were selected strategically — ESPN is the biggest name in sports media, and NYT journalist John Branch had written articles on gay athletes before, so Bragman knew to trust him.

Sam’s announcement was structured as a one-time event and aimed to present Sam as primarily a talented football player, not a gay rights advocate. At the weekly Mizzou press conference on Feb. 10, Sam was not present to speak to the massive reporter onslaught that came clamoring for a quote. The strategic message is obvious: Sam is an athlete, not a soundbite celebrity.

Bragman originally planned for the revelation to follow the NFL combine, but NFL scouts were sniffing around and asking questions about Sam’s sexual orientation. Media outlets threatened to break the story. It was time to go, before someone broke the story and Sam lost the opportunity to come out on his own terms.

Bragman, Barkett and, ultimately, Sam displayed impeccable message control. Although Sam’s situation is not equivalent to Beyoncé’s surprise album dropped in December, the element of message management is similar to it. Few knew it was coming, and when it did, it was executed expertly.

Breaking stealth news is not easy. It requires secrecy, a trusted team and the strategic use of carefully selected media partners. Most of all, it requires flexibility and sensitivity to the situation itself and to changing circumstances like nosy NFL scouts.

It is impressive that the Mizzou administration knew that Sam is gay, along with teammates and fellow students, and their knowledge proved inconsequential. Sports media and recruiters had their suspicions. Yet, Sam had the support and design needed to break his own story. Nobody got the scoop or the leak — Sam was, and is, in control of his story.

Sam cannot control his draft stock, however. Some detractors claim his rank in the draft will fall due to the news, and teams will lose interest in a player who has a media circus following him. They think his sexual orientation will be a distraction — unlike the convicted felons who have peppered the league and assimilated without panicked rhetoric. Teams have survived potential “distractions” — the San Diego Chargers drafted Manti Te’o after his humiliating fake girlfriend scandal, and as it turned out, Te’o brought almost no media baggage to San Diego.

Good luck to Sam. Being seen first as a football player and not a gay football player will be a tough challenge, but he deserves to be judged on his talent and personal courage, not his personal life. It will be interesting to see how far Sam goes and how his media strategy changes as his NFL future does.

3 Comments

  1. Christina Steward

    Great blog! Very well written! Mrs. Sims must be proud!

    Reply

  2. Kyle Borland

    Unfortunately, it’s impossible for Sam to be anything other than the “first gay football player.” Jackie Robinson was amazing but he’ll always be the “first black baseball player.” It’s just a cross Sam will have to bear but the PR team did one hell of a job.

    Great blog!

    Reply

  3. Heather Whiteside

    This piece has a lot of great reasons as to why it is so important to spend money on PR! I believe it was very smart on both Sam and his agent’s part to employ public relations to produce and manage how he would reveal his story. If Sam would have kept quiet about his sexual orientation and come out on his own to the public without professional guidance, the public might have interpreted the news differently. The reactions would have been different because of the careful timing of the story’s release. If the story had come out in the middle of football season, there would be more media attention on his personal life, rather than Missouri as a team and their performance. I think having the media and public relations company execute a strategic plan for Sam with exactly what to say, and partnering with NYT reporter and ESPN, was a crucial element as to how the public’s reception was more positive than negative. The association of Sam with ESPN was a benefit to connect him with a well-known name in sports. The journalist from NYT was picked because Bragman knew the article about Sam would be perfectly written and respectable. Really researching outside sources for your client, like using NYT and ESPN, is so important when finding the best way to represent your client’s image by utilizing others to help you. The next step I would say to take for Bragman and Sam, is to continue to respond with honesty while the backlash and debate over him being a draft pick goes on. A nice new campaign could come from this in advocating for gay athletes that Sam could be the face of perhaps?
    Thanks for the great read!

    Reply

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