Zavala at the Zou

Confessions of a Pissed off Reporter: Michael Sam

He stood on the balcony, looking down on the handful of reporters interviewing his teammates. He waved to one player, cackled and pointed to another. It was Mizzou football’s Monday media day, in the heat of Missouri’s swelteringly successful football season. At that point, Michael Sam was averaging more than a sack per game, honored with the SEC’s weekly defensive award three weeks in a row, injecting himself into the discussion as one of the best defensive players in the country. He had so much to do with Missouri’s defensive production, but he, apparently, didn’t want to talk about it.  Instead he looked onto us over a balcony, as if we were a tank full of sharks, waiting to devour him.

That Monday was like most Mondays during the 2013 regular season. We were told a scheduling conflict- a class- kept Michael from participating in Missouri’s weekly media session. We would catch glimpses of him as he stood on the balcony, before and after the senior meetings that took place on the 2nd floor of Missouri’s athletic complex. Sometimes we watched as he strolled through (without any sense of urgency) the clusters of interviews taking place in the atrium, on his way to “class.”

As each Monday passed, the local media’s curiosity grew. That’s the interesting part about silence.  Silence causes us to think, analyze, discuss, predict, and sometimes share information with one another. By the end of the regular season, anyone who covered Mizzou football knew Michael Sam was gay.

I had known about Michael’s situation since his red shirt freshman year in 2010. I was still in college at the time and we shared a fair amount of mutual friends. I never thought the story would be “broken”, I never tried to pursue the story simply because I figured it would be Michael’s story to tell when he was ready to finally tell it. My colleagues- as more and more of them learned about his situation- held the same belief. This was a story unlike any other, but one for which we could not be aggressive.

Mondays became comically frustrating. Michael moseyed through media days without comment, his accolades building, his name plunging deeper into the All-American discussion, and we couldn’t even talk to him about any of it. Fans started asking why he wasn’t speaking with the media. Regional and national reporters didn’t understand why Missouri’s best defensive player was so taciturn. Michael being gay wasn’t even our main interest for interview; it was his success as a defensive end, the impact he made during one of the winningest football seasons in program history. We wanted to talk about football.

After the semester ended and Mizzou began preparing for the Cotton Bowl, the team’s spokesmen could no longer use “class” as an excuse for Michael’s absence on media availability days. Michael spoke to the media for the first time after practice Tuesday, December 17th- five months after media began meeting with football players on a regular basis. We had five months worth of questions, five months worth of football to talk about, five months of what-the-hell-Michael-why-haven’t you-done-a-single-interview-until-now.

As the nucleus in a cell of media, Michael described himself as “outgoing”. Not a tenth of a second passed before I blurted, “If you’re so ‘outgoing’, then why haven’t you talked to us!?” Michael said he wanted to focus on school and football without distractions. I went on that day to ask several of his teammates if they thought talking to the media was a distraction, all of which, in the end, said no.

What was even more infuriating about Michael’s soundlessness was that he never had a bad experience with the media, wasn’t ever really ripped for anything, especially on the local level. Other teammates of his, who did indeed have bad experiences, and true cases for perceiving the media as distracting (James Franklin, for example) were still doing interviews.

Although all members of the local media knew he was gay, we all avoided asking him anything that might invade his privacy when he finally made himself available to us. We followed essentially unwritten rules to help guard his privacy, all collectively sticking to the belief that it would be Michael’s story to tell, no one else’s.

Michael told his story February 10th from the mountain peaks: ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times. I’d like to think there was a collective exhale from the Mizzou athletics community and its reporters. My colleagues and I looked forward to telling a piece of history in American college athletics. For most of us locals, however, that wouldn’t be the case.

We are still waiting to talk to Michael Sam.

I wanted to write this post when I initially found out Michael Sam’s publicist, Howard Bragman, was shooting down interview requests from everyone in addition to local media. The excuse for not talking was similar to that of the one he used leading up to the Cotton Bowl: He wanted to just focus on football. I held off on ranting. I figured after the NFL Combine and Mizzou Pro Day (two of his highly publicized obstacles before the NFL Draft), he would be ready to talk to the local media, the same group that covered him before he was the SEC’s defensive player of the year, before he became a figure in American football history.

I was furious when Mizzou sent out its Pro Day Release, the words “HOWEVER, I have confirmed with Michael Sam’s publicist that he will not be doing interviews” in its final paragraph. I truly believe there is proper etiquette associated with handling someone’s privacy as much as there is dealing with those who helped maintain that privacy. The fact that Michael Sam would not be practicing that etiquette, would not be reciprocating us with just ten minutes of his time, was absolutely enraging.

I emailed Bragman the night before Missouri’s pro day, asking for clarity on this situation, how the local media that covered Sam long before he was even his client, could be denied access. Bragman responded:

“If you have followed the Michael Sam story and read the background stories of how it happened, how it unfolded the way it did, etc., I think you will find very clear responses to your questions.
I have been nothing but clear and upfront.  Michael and his team have chosen to focus on football and not the media.  It’s that simple.
I hope you’re feeling enlightened.”

In response to Bragman’s email, I told him the local media followed all the rules to make Michael’s situaton anything but a distraction. We wanted to talk to Michael about FOOTBALL, it was that simple.

Bragman’s reponse?

“Peace.”

Pro Day was comically frustrating. The sighs grew louder from his former teammates as they were asked questions about the player that would not talk to us. Subtle eye rolls and short answers surfaced as they were asked about their former teammate. I sympathized with their frustration, because the true storyline of Missouri’s pro day was no longer “Fifteen Mizzou Players are NFL Hopefuls” but instead, “One Mizzou Player Still Refuses to Talk After Telling the World He is Gay.”

It’s hard to keep my blood from simmering. I share this sentiment with my colleagues, all who are frustrated by the circus Michael Sam and “his team” have inadvertently created by withholding him from local media. Michael Sam wants to be treated like every other football player going through this process, but every other player going through this process is talking to the media. Interviews being a mandatory part of life in the NFL, Michael Sam will bring an even bigger parade to the team that drafts him. Going almost another three months without speaking to the media, the media will have three months worth of questions.

On the contrary, Kony Ealy made himself available to the media at pro day and every single day leading up to it and after. He constantly tweets about articles, radio and video in which he’s participated. And, oh by the way, Ealy is a first or second round projection.

There are hundreds of players who will probably get drafted before Michael Sam, most of who- like Ealy- probably don’t see the media as an earth shattering “distraction.” Talking to the media is a part of the process, part of the norm that is associated with going to the NFL. Once Michael Sam deviated from the norm of this process, he automatically made himself a distraction.

But, the most mind-boggling part of it all?

Michael not talking to media seems so out of sync with his character. This is the guy who sat at the front of the Joplin relief bus, asking Dave Matter about the book he was reading. This is the young man who took my microphone, said it was his American Idol debut, then sang on camera. This is the man who fearlessly gathered his entire football team and told them he was gay. This is the pioneer who stared into television sets across the world, declaring he wanted to be the first openly gay player in the NFL. With such a fearless, unrelenting personality, why is he so afraid to talk to us? Does he really see us as the sharks that could potentially devour him?

We are human. We were human enough to resist invading his privacy. We were human enough to feel happy for him when he told his own story, human enough to be inspired by his courage. We are human enough to feel proud that he stood up to society’s norms and expectations, still on track to pursuing his dreams while shattering stereotypes. But we are also human enough to recognize how ridiculous it is that he doesn’t want to continue sharing his story with the people who began telling it.

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