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.