By Annie Hollenbeck
Originally published on Advocate.com August 27 2014 11:55 AM ET
Prior to his interview with ESPN’s Outside the Lines in February, Michael Sam was well-known to fans of college football, but certainly not a ubiquitous figure in the LGBT community. Cut to August, when Sam, now signed by the St. Louis Rams, has put up three preseason sacks and shown to be a viable rookie for any NFL roster. On Tuesday, Sam made the first round of Rams cuts, but head coach Jeff Fisher has been tight-lipped about whether or not Sam will still be a Ram after the deadline Saturday, when all NFL teams must cut their rosters to 53. If Sam is not signed to the Rams this season, it will most likely be on account of St. Louis’s deep defensive line.
Despite his performance this preseason, Sam’s sexual orientation has remained the driving force behind his media coverage. The issue of inclusion and acceptance for LGBT athletes on all levels is certainly paramount, and so it is important to identify athletes as they choose to live publicly and openly in their respective sports.
On Tuesday, however, ESPN’s Jay Crawford asked reporter Josina Anderson, in a live interview, how Sam is fitting in with his Rams teammates. The question itself has been posed and is relatively old news, but her answer was even more bizarre. At first, Anderson reported on Sam’s progress as a rookie — working to fit in, watching and learning, and experiencing the growth expected from an elite college athlete suddenly forced to compete at an exponentially more challenging level.
However, Anderson went on to report about how none of the Rams players with whom she had spoken had showered with Sam yet. She spoke about player speculation as to why Sam hadn’t been in the shower at the same time as his teammates, the reason for which could range anywhere from additional training to, according to her and an unidentified Rams player, a respect for space. Who can say, really? We are, after all, discussing hypotheticals and sensationalized speculation.
What got buried in the report was a quote from Rams defensive tackle Kendall Langford, highlighting Sam’s worth in the NFL and professing that regardless of his status on the Rams, Sam has “shown some flashes” and should be expected to play in the league this fall.
In ESPN’s own language, this report warrants a big, affirmative, “C’mon, man!” When a professional athlete is outed or comes out, the court of public opinion oftentimes weighs heavily in the direction of relative apathy. The newsworthiness of an active openly gay player is still there, and it will continue to be an important topic until athletes on all levels feel much more comfortable to be out and open. However, when ESPN, an internationally recognized news organization, reduces his sense of inclusion to whether or not he’s been naked in front of other men, it further perpetuates the need to discuss needless, ignorant concerns.
Once a player is out, on a team, and competing, issues about his or her teammates’ comfort in the locker room should be a moot point. The fact that Johnson felt it was appropriate to ask professional athletes about another man’s showering habits is discriminatory reporting. In what world, less than two weeks out of the start of the regular season, would you ever ask, say, Wes Welker, “Hey Wes, how’s the concussion? Also, have you seen Peyton shower any time recently?”
Today, ESPN issued the following apology: “ESPN regrets the manner in which we presented our report. Clearly yesterday we collectively failed to meet the standards we have set in reporting on LGBT-related topics in sports.”
The apology is fine, but how long until ESPN or another network or sports outlet makes another mistake like this? How many is it going to take until everyone gets that Michael Sam is gay, and gay people shower. Insecure straight people will be uncomfortable showering next to a gay person. But none of these facts justify needless concerns that the presence of a gay person in the locker room will lead to incessant ogling and cruising.
Michael Sam got drafted. Michael Sam has played passionately and competitively. Michael Sam is keeping his head down, training, and learning all he can from NFL veterans. ESPN’s reporting on his showering habits is unprofessional and juvenile.
Unless Sam somehow does something really newsworthy in the locker room, let’s keep his coverage on the field.
ANNIE HOLLENBECK began her career in sports journalism at ESPN, not long after graduating from the University of Notre Dame. She is an avid runner, a New York sports apologist, and a self-proclaimed cinephile. Annie currently resides in Los Angeles, works as the production manager at Outfest, and covers sports for Advocate.com.