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The Kiss

Michael Sam got drafted, we all witnessed something special, and then … what happened?

How’d you feel when you saw the kiss? You know the one I mean. If I weren’t such a jaded soul, I’d call it the V-J Day photo of 2014. Michael Sam, the defensive end who’d just been drafted by the St. Louis Rams, turns to his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, and kisses him. Right on the mouth. Right in front of the world. Jaded soul, right? Not at that moment. I forgot all about the NFL’s long history of coded bigotry and imagined we were on a Devin Hester glide path into the future.

“It was my sports moment of the year, hands down,” said Jim Buzinski, one of the founders of the website Outsports. “We’ve seen World Cup celebrations. World Series celebrations. All sorts of celebration and dejection. This was something nobody had ever seen before.

“That’s why the image was powerful. Because it caused this reaction or discussion that was either good or bad. People were confronted with it. Because that’s what gay men do. They actually kiss just like straight people do.”

“I’m an athlete,” said Robbie Rogers, a winger with the L.A. Galaxy who came out in 2013. “So I was thinking, Wait, if he’s a seventh-round pick, what does he get for a contract? Does he still have to try out?

But later, Rogers remembered driving through Santa Monica, seeing sports bars stuffed with fans during that seventh round of the draft. “I was thinking that those people would really love to see Michael be able to celebrate with his partner. A lot of people, when they were younger, never thought they would have a role model like that.”

Chris Kluwe, the former Vikings punter who has stumped for LGBT rights, was playing video games during the seventh round. He saw the kiss on Twitter. “People were getting bent out of shape because Michael Sam was kissing his boyfriend. It’s like, what’s the big deal?”

Wade Davis, a former NFL cornerback who came out after retiring in 2003, sat in a coffee shop in New York recently, remembering the kiss. “I could imagine that masculinity just screamed,” he said. “Ahhhhh! You betrayed me, football!

He laughed. “I also thought about how no straight guy can ever say he didn’t see two men kiss during a sporting event,” Davis said. “And how beautiful was that?”

michael-sam-kiss-screenshot

Remember your smile, because what came after wasn’t nearly as fun. A lot less fun, in some cases. A rearguard of bigots and the enablers of the NFL’s no-“distractions” policy had their own sultry kiss in front of the world. Players and reporters tried to say the right things, to give no offense — which is better than the alternative, but can have a certain narcotizing effect on journalism. Also, Sam got cut — twice. It’s either a credit or demerit to our society that two men kissing on television was the most uncomplicated part of Sam’s first season in the NFL.

Michael Sam was the 2013 SEC Co–Defensive Player of the Year. This fact was cited again and again when writers asked why Sam didn’t get drafted higher or couldn’t stick on anybody’s practice squad. A mostly unwritten side note was that Sam wasn’t really all that good until his senior year of college, and thus didn’t have much experience dealing with media. He had little preparation for the reporters who would soon be waiting at his locker.

Sam’s coming-out was planned by Howard Bragman, the public relations sorcerer who managed the comings-out of Dick Sargent (the “second Darrin” from Bewitched), Family Ties’s Meredith Baxter, and former NBA center John Amaechi. Bragman knew Sam’s announcement would be another order of magnitude. “It’s certainly one of the two biggest comings out ever,” he told the Daily Beast. “This and Ellen.” Bragman gave triple exclusives to the New York Times, ESPN, and Outsports.

Sam hoped that after the initial tsunami, interest in his story would subside. “I thought people would be just, ‘Okay, he came out,’” he told GQ this month, when the publication named him one of its Men of the Year. “And that would be that.” Sam said he wanted to be a “football player,” full stop. Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers could have told him that this wish was naive at best. Rogers said he gave so many interviews and attended so many events after signing with the Galaxy in 2013 that he wore himself down and eventually got injured. I asked Rogers what question he heard the most from writers. “Very standard,” Rogers said. “‘So you’re gay and you play soccer?’

“And I was like, ‘I know … ’”

By 2014, Rogers figured a flood of pro athletes would have come out to share spokesman duty. “But it really hasn’t happened,” Rogers said. “There are only three of us.” So in 2014, a reporter looking to write about the experience of an openly gay pro athlete in team sports could choose from Rogers or Collins or Sam, and by November Collins had retired from basketball.

“Once he made the announcement, he was never just going to be a football player,” said Cyd Zeigler, who founded Outsports with Buzinski. “I understand what he was trying to say, but it just doesn’t work. You can’t make that announcement, knowing what it means to so many people and the media and history, and then say, ‘Now forget it.’ In an ideal world, we’d be able to forget it. It wouldn’t matter who Michael’s dating. But in 2014, it matters. I didn’t agree with the idea that you could just wash it away.”

A little more than a week after his announcement, Sam went to the NFL draft combine and found himself surrounded by a horde of reporters. He seemed to realize what he was in for. Sam said plaintively, “I just wish you guys would see me as Michael Sam the football player instead of Michael Sam the gay football player.”

In the spring, a funny thing happened to Sam. His announcement, this moment of joy, became a line item on his CV. It had less to do with Sam being gay than the NFL’s wish to smother all “distractions” — distractions being a conflation of anything from human sexuality to business interests to crime. “The fact Michael Sam is gay is like another player abusing his wife or something,” said Chris Kluwe.

Sam’s trailblazer status was almost never written about as a potential benefit for the team that might draft him — the glow of happy publicity that attends nearly every other LGBT-friendly company on the planet. It was talked about as a burden to be overcome, something teams “wouldn’t want to deal with,” in the clucking of Tony Dungy. If you were inclined to believe there was a conspiracy against Sam, it wasn’t hard to find prima facie evidence. As the Daily Beast noted, CBSSports.com dropped Sam 70 spots on its draft board.

“The NFL has a long history of taking guys like that in the third or fourth round and giving them two to three years while they figure out, ‘How do we use this guy?’” said Kluwe. “The fact is, Michael Sam fits all those criteria and then comes out as gay and drops to the very last round of the draft. Well, what’s the one thing that changed?”

By the time the draft rolled around, there was a fear that all the excitement had been for naught. FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote that it was 50-50 that Sam would be drafted at all. The draft’s seventh round had the feel of a test: Just how tolerant was the NFL, really? Finally, Sam was picked with the 249th out of 256 picks. Then: the kiss. Tweets from the president, the first lady, even Joe Biden. There was joy. For a while.

The most interesting episodes of Michael Sam’s first year happened behind closed doors, far away from the press and even away from Sam himself. Wade Davis, the former NFL cornerback, stood before the full rosters of four NFL teams: the Giants, Rams, Buccaneers, and Vikings. He said, I used to be an NFL player like you. I’m gay. Ask me anything you want. It’s all off the record.

Davis pitched himself both as an ambassador from LGBT culture (he’s the executive director of the You Can Play Project) and a guy who knew the locker room: He’d once nodded along with homophobic jokes and engaged in bullying. As he put it, “Hell, I didn’t know what LGBT meant until I was 32, and I’m gay.”

The questions Davis got at these seminars were a where-we-are snapshot of 2014. Players asked Davis the inevitable question about showering with a gay teammate. But one guy asked why millionaire ballplayers, whatever their orientation, were expected to shower as a group. Why weren’t separate stalls included in the CBA?

Other players asked Davis: Would a gay football player, you know … check me out? Davis answered that one by commandeering a sports cliché. You know how you always refer to your teammates as your “family”? he asked players. Heads nodded. Well, Davis said, did you ever look at your brothers and sisters naked and get turned on by them?

Davis held a separate Q&A for NFL coaches and executives. He told them about an experience he had watching game film before he came out, when he was playing for Washington. Instead of worrying about his backpedal or opening his hips, he found himself thinking, Wade, you’re running gay. It’s sickening to be scared to express your true self. But here again Davis used a durable cliché to reach the coaches. Worrying about something other than football, he explained, was the ultimate example of what coaches call “wasted motion.”

This was the story of Michael Sam’s first year in the NFL — the story of the guys on the payroll uncertainly facing the 21st century. But we never really heard that story, and two media tempests showed why. The first came on May 14, when Oprah Winfrey announced that Sam would star in a reality series she was producing.

Reality shows (Hard Knocks, 24/7) have long been part of the sports media landscape. They pinch some of the work once done by as-told-to book stenographers, offering the same editorial control, the same “safe space.” I don’t love the trade-off, but you can imagine Sam opening up to a TV producer about what he was seeing and experiencing in the NFL.

But the sports media treated the Oprah announcement as if it had just caught Sam in a lie. Hadn’t Sam said “I’m a football player”? Why, now he was a TV star! Of course, dozens of players work on their craft and still find time to hawk Campbell’s Chunky Soup. But the shaming worked, and the series was canceled. We lost a potential picture of Sam’s first season. (Winfrey’s production company revived the documentary idea after Sam’s season ended.)

By the time Sam reported to Rams training camp, he was wary of the media. At the Rams’ facility in Earth City, Missouri, reporters can’t venture into the locker room — they have to ask for players to be brought out to them. The Rams made Sam available about once every other week, according to Nick Wagoner, a Rams reporter for ESPN’s NFL Nation. Reporters got a few minutes with him after preseason games. Even with limited access, Sam began to develop a rapport with full-timers like Wagoner and Jim Thomas, the beat man at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The next uproar came courtesy of an August 26 report by ESPN’s Josina Anderson. An anonymous player told Anderson that he wondered if Sam was going into the showers after the rest of the Rams so as not to make his teammates uncomfortable. It had the making of a heartbreaking comedy of errors: two players going out of their way not to make the other one feel uncomfortable. But Anderson didn’t have confirmation: Two other Rams told her they didn’t know if the report was true, and Sam didn’t confirm or deny it. ESPN apologized for the story.

The mere mention of the shower tripped off alarm bells with the writers who cover LGBT athletes. “I thought NFL players must be the cleanest people ever, because all they do is talk about showers,” said Jim Buzinski.

However flawed, the report showed a problem with our new, friendlier media universe. Happily, we’ve banished a huge chunk of homophobic locker room chatter. Chris Culliver and Deion Sanders are exceptions, rather than the rule. The problem is, such a gag order makes it nearly impossible to investigate the grimy corners of the human psyche: What is it like in the showers? “There was never going to be space for nuance in that answer,” said Davis. “They had to say, ‘We’re fine with it.’ Because anything else that the athlete said, that athlete is done. That creates this fear.”

Instead of learning what it was like to be in an evolving locker room, we got bromides. After ESPN’s report, Rams defensive end Chris Long tweeted, “Dear ESPN, Everyone but you is over it.” On its face, it’s a sentiment worth cheering. But as Long knows, there’s a reason there wasn’t an openly gay NFL player until 2014. And “everyone” is an awful lot of people.

Thanks to Oprah and Showergate, the Sam story took an odd turn. It was now the media — or “media circus” — that was the true enemy of modernity. Not prejudice. Not the “distraction” jive. Nope, the thinking went, if reporters just backed off, then everyone would get along just fine. The strange thing is, reporters embraced this idea. In August, Peter King saluted Sam for not speaking to other reporters:

He’s said no to every national interview request — Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper, everyone — and will continue to do so, I’m told. “The only time we talk about the story,” Jeff Fisher said, “is when someone from the media comes in and asks about it.”

On August 30, Sam was cut in favor of a defensive lineman named Ethan Westbrooks. As football assets, there was little difference between Sam, a late-seventh-round pick, and Westbrooks, who was the Rams’ biggest target in undrafted free agency. Westbrooks, the coaches thought, was more versatile and could play more positions on the line. He’s still on the roster today.

Sam left St. Louis without anyone really understanding what had happened in the locker room. “One thing I’d like to have written was: Did he have his guard up with his teammates?” Nick Wagoner said. “It’s easy to ask will his teammates accept him. But what has he done to make himself available to be accepted, as well?” But deep inquiries like that were impossible. Sam was gone.

Sam signed with the Cowboys practice squad four days later, on September 3. He gave a short press conference. Reporters quizzed the Cowboys about their new teammate and got familiar responses. “Everybody in the locker room gave you the standard answer: ‘He’s a football player, and if he can help the team, that’s great,’” said Rainer Sabin, a writer with the Dallas Morning News.

Sam told GQ that he felt more comfortable in Dallas than in St. Louis, where he felt he’d been viewed as a “stray dog.” But to the Dallas press, that kind of insight remained elusive. “He would make himself scarce during media availabilities, which lasted from 1:30 [to] 2:15 every day,” said Sabin. “He would rarely be in the locker room. If he was, he was grabbing stuff out of his locker and walking away.” Sam made it clear that he wouldn’t sit for profiles unless he made the active roster. He felt he’d told his story as much as he wanted to tell it.

In an odd way, Sam’s goal of being “just a football player” had been achieved. But it wasn’t because he’d become part of the scenery — something Cyd Zeigler noted would have happened had Sam made an active roster and played in a few games. It was because Sam had made himself virtually invisible. The Dallas press corps contented themselves by asking Cowboys coaches how Sam looked in practice.

Seven weeks after Sam was signed, Dallas cut him to make room for a linebacker named Troy Davis. It was hard to blame bigotry or the “media circus.” “They’d had big personalities in the locker room,” Sabin said, “and they were more than capable of handling the media surrounding that. … This is a team that played 20 defensive linemen last year because of injuries. They were willing to roll out pretty much anybody. If the same scenario played out this year, it could have very well been that Michael Sam was promoted to the active roster. It was a football decision more than anything.”

Sam has spent the last two months of 2014 in the phantom zone of the unsigned. “If I had it my way, I never would have done it the way I did,” he told GQ of his coming-out. He envisioned coming out like he did at Mizzou, telling his teammates but never making a grand pronouncement. It wouldn’t have worked, but it’s a nice idea.

Sam added, “I’ll say this: I want to become a distraction! And what I mean is: by making big plays and doing good stuff on the field. Although nobody would print that, because that’s not a story. Gotta keep bringing up the locker-room situation because he’s gay.” He sounded like Robbie Rogers, a man exhausted by media enthusiasm. Ironically, Sam’s next public appearance came when a TMZ videographer hounded him at the airport.

These days, Sam is angry, Wade Davis said. Angry he’s not in the NFL. Some of us are, too. The kiss portended a rousing story with John Facenda narration. Even if we stipulate the Rams and Cowboys gave Sam a fair shake, what about the other 30 NFL teams? In September, Mike Freeman of Bleacher Report engaged in a typical bit of media self-mortification (“We Tebow-ed him”). But he also identified widespread bigotry: “There is no way to get around it: Sam isn’t signed because teams fear his being gay. They don’t really care about the circus. The media, having perhaps overpublicized the story, serves [as] a gorgeous scapegoat.”

Freeman’s isn’t an unusual opinion in the sports press. “Michael Sam is not on an active roster today because he is openly gay,” Cyd Zeigler wrote in Outsports last month. Zeigler said reporters sniffing around for locker-room stories should be hounding the gerontocracy of owners, the “old white guys” who were refusing to sign Sam.

One of the lessons of 2014 is that any nasty rumor you hear about the NFL is at least partially true. There’s undoubtedly some percentage of teams whose owner or GM or coach muttered something that precluded signing Sam. But it’s hard to nail down the breadth of such a snub. Was it half the teams in the league? One quarter? “Unfortunately, it’s one of those things where unless you’re a superstar, a Jackie Robinson–type talent, there are so many plausible reasons they can use for getting rid of you,” said Chris Kluwe.

And it’s worth noting that some Sam fans don’t see a conspiracy. Wade Davis spent chunks of his career shuttling between the far edge of the roster and the practice squad. For him, Sam right now is a marginal NFL player whom a lot of us desperately want to succeed.

Michael Sam’s kiss remains unmoored from a happy ending, a free-agent image floating through cyberspace. But this is 2014 — images can be useful. Outsports has been churning out stories of college and high school athletes who are coming out to their teammates, inspired by Sam and Rogers and Jason Collins. That will eventually trickle up to the pro level.

The kiss also makes you hungry for the next image, another dopamine hit that makes you forget the inevitable messiness of the present and look to the future. “Imagine the Super Bowl’s over and they’re doing the Disney commercial,” said Jim Buzinski. “‘What are you going to do next?’ And the guy says, ‘I’m going to Gay Days at Disney World!’ That would be my ultimate moment, the Super Bowl MVP announcing that to the world.”