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The NFL Wants Michael Sam to Be a Distraction

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Oprah's making a "documentary series" about Michael Sam, and everyone feels some way or another about it.

Some lament Sam trading in political capital and public goodwill for a spotlight to enhance his personal brand, while others appreciate the value a television series will provide for young gay kids, especially athletes and/or minorities, to see one of the few role models they have on his journey to make the St. Louis Rams and thus history.

Let's just get this out of the way: Is this a good idea? Of course not.

First, it isn't a smart move for Sam, who would do more for the LGBTQ cause in the long run if he just focused on football and made the roster -- the push for equality won't go forward if he ultimately gets cut. Fair or not, this move will and already has rubbed a lot of people the wrong way -- people who were either already rooting for him, were on the fence about it, or whose prejudices have irreversibly bent them against him. When you're trying to further civil rights, using your sexuality as the hook for entertainment is counterproductive. I understand the desire to serve as an inspiration to others while simultaneously attempting to take control of your own public image, but a glorified reality series on a network whose track record in the space involves letting Lindsay Lohan continue to make a fool of herself isn't exactly the way to go about that.

Now, is this the right idea, in the sense of right or wrong? Here is where I start to take issue with the debate around Sam's docu-series. On the one hand, it does seem hypocritically self-serving to profess your desire to be known primarily as a football player, not a gay football player, and then turn around and sign on to a documentary about your quest to become the first openly gay football player. On the other hand, if you were one of the last picks in the draft, who had watched for weeks as NFL writers questioned your abilities, and had no guarantee of being kept on by your team, you'd probably try to secure an alternate source of income, too. (The Rams themselves have publicly stated that they would cooperate with the show, which has in turn promised not to film anywhere near the team's facilities.)

But let's jump off our collective high horse before we go criticizing Sam for making a spectacle of himself. The NFL and ESPN had already accomplished that weeks before, culminating on draft day, when the network stationed cameras inside a gay bar in West Hollywood, because apparently the Stonewall Inn in Manhattan would have been just too on-the-nose. As Deadspin's Samer Kalaf notes, self-righteous NFL writers have criticized Sam for making himself a "distraction," that bogeyman word for things the media and the league decry while feeding off the attention those things cause.

That's why it's okay to criticize Sam for failing to disclose the series before the draft (out of the totally rational fear that it would hurt his already weak draft stock), but the NFL largely gets a pass for knowing about it all along and not informing the 32 teams. Yes, the supposedly distraction-averse league with the biggest and baddest PR machine this side of Big Oil signed off on Sam's show. Why? For the same reason it continues to foist HBO's "Hard Knocks" on its mostly unwilling teams: The NFL's business is built on ratings and recognition, regardless of what happens in the locker room or on the field. It's all part of the league's push to, in the words of NFL Network executive producer Eric Weinberger, "eventize" football.

And we're all accomplices: From the players who provide the product while boosting their personal brand, to the media who perpetuate the cycle of building up a story until it achieves "distraction" status and then writing about how these guys should just stick to the game. Sam is in the middle of all these competing interests, not the least of which are those representing the admirable fight for equality. But as I've already mentioned, this reality show doesn't fully serve the interests of Sam or the Rams or the LGBTQ community. It only serves the NFL. And Oprah.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Toby Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net