Yesterday, OWN announced that they would be releasing a documentary series about Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player who was just drafted by the St. Louis Rams.
An hour or so before it was officially announced, I was on YouTube watching Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer celebrity interviews and found Ellen Degeneres’s interview on Primetime Live back in 1998. It was the interview after her ABC sitcom Ellen was canceled that year, ostensibly for falling ratings. In the interview, Ellen accused ABC of abandoning her and the show after she (and her character) came out as a lesbian the season prior. Robert Iger, the president of the network at the time, claimed that the show’s falling ratings wasn’t because of the network’s lack of promotion, but because Ellen took on more LGBT issues in their storylines, making viewers uncomfortable and causing them to change the channel. When pressed by Diane Sawyer about whether his network was promoting intolerance by labeling those episodes as “adult content”, Iger said it was his responsibility to the audience to inform them about content that would make them uncomfortable, and that society wasn’t at a place to comfortably discuss two women being in a sexual relationship (that wasn’t played up for laughs, a rather telling charge that Ellen levied against the network as well).
When I learned about the Michael Sam series on OWN, I couldn’t help thinking about that interview with Ellen. Specifically, how such a beloved figure in entertainment could see their popularity collapse because they were gay, depicting life as a gay person on their very popular program. It’s 2014, sixteen years since that interview, so obviously the entertainment industry has changed for the better.
Sports, however, is a completely different arena. It is terribly behind the times on LGBT acceptance and sensitivity. After all, Michael Sam is the first NFL player to come out while playing. Just last year, Jason Collins became the first active NBA player to come out, and it took months before a team would take him on. Michael Sam’s kiss on ESPN after learning about the draft sparked outrage amongst some, even active NFL players. Why? Because there are still people who are uncomfortable, if not outright hateful, regarding real-world examples of homosexuality. For them, it works as an existential concept, but when real-world applications are presented, like Ellen did, it’s going way too far out of the comfort zone.
Michael Sam’s OWN series may be going too far for an audience that is still grappling with a gay football player in the first place. There are people who will insist that Sam “lied” about wanting to just be a football player, and that he is pushing a gay agenda. Others will argue that he is distracting from the game of football by highlighting his personal life, particularly who he chooses to love. Then there are those who will say nothing, but decide privately that Michael Sam, and the St. Louis Rams, are not worth supporting.
Frankly, Michael Sam’s OWN series is ill-advised, at least in my opinion. While certainly a groundbreaking and brave move, it will also throw his NFL career in jeopardy before it even begins. Many strides have been taken since Ellen went off the air, but there is still a hefty amount of bigotry and intolerance in our society, an even greater amount within the sports world. I fear that Michael Sam will be sitting in front of Diane Sawyer this time next year, explaining to her how it all went wrong, just Ellen did. Maybe we would even have a Robert Iger type from the NFL explaining the organization’s side.
Hopefully, I’m wrong but history does have a nasty habit of repeating itself.