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Sam TV Is Wrong Venue For Change

Michael Sam wants to be a football player, no different from any other. Now he is.

Seeing the opportunity to cash in on his story, Sam agreed to star in a yet-to-be-named “documentary series” on the Oprah Winfrey Network.

Starring in a reality TV show, in itself, is not a bad idea. Doing so builds the Michael Sam brand and the show should push sales of Stand With Sam and Sam-Strong-branded merchandise on his website.

Oprah has built a billion-dollar media empire promoting compassion through schmaltz, and Sam fits perfectly. He is handsome, articulate, sympathetic and inspirational. He also is trying to destroy barriers by becoming the first openly gay player in the NFL. Oprah’s pantsuit-clad audience will eat it up.

Since he revealed his sexuality, Sam has repeatedly said his goal is to be a football player and not a gay football player. OWN needs him to be both. The network itself has made it clear that when it comes to Michael Sam, football and gay are inseparable. According to a network press release, the show “will follow Sam as he works to earn his spot on the St. Louis Rams, all while under the intense scrutiny of being the first openly gay player in the NFL.”

What happens if Sam gets cut or is good enough where his sexuality doesn’t matter? The cameras will depart as fast as they came, leaving their new star to face the backlash the network helped start.

Sam was wrong not to reveal the agreement before the draft. Teams have a right to know if an employee is going to enter training camp with a camera crew in tow. The Rams, who drafted Sam in the seventh round, don’t appear upset that the former Missouri defensive end kept the deal secret and have acted appropriately. OWN cameras will only have the same access as other media and won’t be shooting daily practices and other team activities.

The team also has been working with You Can Play Project executive director Wade Davis to ensure a respectful workplace. You Can

Play Project is an advocacy group that is, according to its website, “dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation.”

Beyond the surprise that Sam will follow Lindsay Lohan into the OWN family of documentary stars, is the uncertainty that the previous coverage has been manipulated by Sam and show producers, which includes his two agents.

Sam’s tears and emotional embrace of his boyfriend on ESPN was the highlight of the NFL draft. Fifty-four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1962 became law, a gay man finally felt safe enough to kiss his partner on national TV, and except for the predictable exhibitions of hate, it was a moment well-received. The embrace suggested that for one brief moment, we as a nation are more tolerant, that we got better.

But while the message remains the same, that public displays of love by gay couples is nothing to fear, one can be excused for feeling a bit cheated by the coverage. Before the OWN show announcement, the cake-in-the-face shots were fun. Now it appears suspicious that someone would schedule a party and have a cake at the ready following three days of drafting.

Sam can talk all he wants about focusing only on football, but that’s no longer possible. His TV show and T-shirts may have made that wish moot. (Just prior to press, OWN accounced it is postponing the show.) Sam has decided to be the face of tolerance and therefore he cannot be seen as manipulative. In issues of social change, minorities must be better than the majority.

Given the choice, Jackie Robinson would have neck-punched the first person who talked down to him. He didn’t because he couldn’t. Had he done so, full integration of the sport would have taken even longer.

Sam’s fight is similar but harder.

He has marginal NFL talent and is part of the world’s most ostracized community, hated by both Klan members and church-goers alike. In everything he does, he must be above reproach. He must be a better athlete and a better person than all of his critics. It’s just that important.

Sam’s NFL career may be short. But should he fail, his effort won’t be wasted. Sam has pushed open the door, it is up to the rest of us to walk through.

Twitter: @SteveMurray84