By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) — Oprah Winfrey’s network is calling it a “postponement,” but it sure seems like the idea of a Michael Sam reality show is dead.
That decision is both right and wrong, for complicated reasons worthy of some attempt to reconcile conflicting perspectives.
Upon first hearing of the project by OWN to chronicle the 7th-round pick’s battle to make the St. Louis Rams’ roster, my initial disappointment stemmed from the apparently selfish, look-at-me behavior from someone who had just so carefully articulated just how focused he was on being a football player and a teammate. That he withheld knowledge of the documentary’s existence until after the draft added a sour layer of cynicism to what had been nothing but a positive story.
Reaction was swift and understandably scornful, including the usual regurgitations of chestnuts about “distraction” and locker-room tensions, and reported misgivings from anonymous teammates about the prying eye of the camera.
Whether due to any damage to the Oprah brand, pressure from the Rams, or second thoughts from Sam’s camp, it’s not happening.
On one hand, Sam’s story is so much bigger than NFL football that it deserves to be chronicled, and one could argue that it needs to be. His comfort in his own skin, and his active desire to live truthfully and publicly are heroic and historically significant. Whether he is to make the team or not, even getting to this point matters enough for every gay athlete that it merits the attention. If his saga empowers or comforts one lonely high-schooler or depressed collegian tired of living in a self-imposed prison, the better for it. Perhaps more importantly, a sensitive and well-produced record of his experience could encourage one of the many current, veteran gay pro athletes to come forward proudly.
I’ll never trust, though, that such a subject would be handled without the typical sensationalism and fictionalization now endemic to the genre. There is no clear distinction anymore between what constitutes the respected realm of documentary filmmaking and the sordid, compromised reality-TV that is anything but. The average viewer is conditioned to wonder where the person ends and the character begins.
The other downside is ruffling the feathers of the team and the NFL, though that really shouldn’t matter to us. Even as these franchises present themselves as sturdy, tough organizations behind Roger Goodell’s precious and mighty shield, the truth is that they are largely hypersensitive and frightened by bright lights, terrified of proximity to anything they can’t control with whistles, shouts and schedules. They invoke the term “distraction” as part of the silly pretense that there is nothing for any of these grown adults beyond their immediate work.
Once anything takes on the mere appearance of something outside of their comfort, it is slapped with the d-word to try to stigmatize it out of existence. You’ll notice this same tactic applies less often to a player assaulting his wife or starting a bar fight that ends with somebody shot or stabbed – those are just part of the game.
Regardless, news of the show caused much of Sam’s well-earned capital to erode, with the cancellation (postponement?) an attempt to stave off further PR damage. It turned quickly into a situation with much more to be lost than gained for him, with those of us immediately turned off by the idea wondering what he could possibly be thinking, even as a more thoughtful consideration leaves us with nagging uncertainty.
A professional football team should be able to handle such a minor intrusion into their daily training routines, if not actively embrace it for bigger, better reasons than just the game. Sadly, the fact is that they can’t, and won’t.
Ultimately, all of our reflexive old fears won out. The Michael Sam television project will not exist because of our small-minded, ongoing acceptance of what teams claim is detrimental to winning football games.
It’s obvious that this project just couldn’t happen, and that’s too bad.