In the entire history of the NFL, there has never been a seventh round draft pick quite like Michael Sam. His story is unique. He inspires and he polarizes. On his chiseled physique rests the hopes, dreams and aspirations of an untold number of LGBT Americans who may care nothing about pro football, but are pulling for the first openly gay player to make a team’s roster.
But the feel-good aspect of Sam’s story was sidetracked by the revelation that a reality TV program for the Oprah Winfrey Network was in the works. NFL officials were aware of this before Sam was drafted in the last round by the St. Louis Rams, but none of the teams were told. Would it have lessened Sam’s chances of being selected? Without a doubt.
As a rookie, Sam stands to make a minimum salary of $420,000. Excluded is a signing bonus and other contract bonuses negotiated between the player and club. Sam’s contract can’t be renegotiated until after three years and he would not receive any salary until the regular season starts. If Sam doesn’t make the Rams roster, he gets nothing but the bonus money.
If Sam were to play for the three years of the contract, his minimum salary would to $495,000 in the second year and $570,000 in the third.
“Michael is focused on football and making the St. Louis Rams team,” said Howard Bragman, Sam’s publicist and one of the show’s producers. “We’re going to work with the Rams organization to make sure the show doesn’t interfere with his primary goal.”
Bragman didn’t say how much Sam stands to make from the show, but you can bet it’s more than his rookie salary.
The pay range from the No. 1 pick to the last at No. 256 is more than $22 million. Compared to Sam, Jadeveon Clowney, the top overall selection of the Houston Texans will sign a $22 million contract, including a guaranteed $14 million signing bonus. That last part is crucial because unlike the NBA or MLB, contracts are not guaranteed in the NFL. If Sam bombs out at the first practice, that’s it.
Certainly Oprah Winfrey, the NFL and to a lesser extent, the Rams, are hopeful that isn’t the case and the Michael Sam shows ends before it barely gets started. But there are no guarantees Sam will be on the team’s opening day roster. As a borderline player who was not highly coveted despite his SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors, Sam is unlikely to find many other teams to latch on if the Rams cut him loose.
It is understandable why Sam would agree to the making of a reality show on his journey to the NFL. Unless he make it in the league, his star will never shine brighter and burn hotter than it does now. The time to maximize the Michael Sam Brand is now when the interest is there as well as the cameras and commercial endorsements.
What this does is shoot a hole in Sam’s assertions he wants to be known as just a football player and not any sort of celebrity. Let’s be honest here. If Sam wasn’t a gay man, there would be no story here. He’d be just another guy taken in the last round of the NFL Draft trying to impress his coaches by winning a roster spot.
Making money while you’re trying to make a football team isn’t a bad thing, but there’s no way Sam can honestly claim he only wants to be regarded as just another guy. He’s not. He’s a celebrity and whether he makes the team there will be books, talk shows, and a ton more deals coming his way.
Sam’s representatives are making all the typical sounds of how this won’t become a distraction, but it already is. Nothing about Sam leads me to believe he is stupid or naive and he’d have to be both not to know how this would look to the casual football fan who doesn’t care if Sam is gay, doesn’t mind if he kisses his boyfriend on camera, and only expects him to make plays and be about the team, not himself.
There is a strong conservative streak in the NFL. When a straight player like Chris Kluwe made too much noise about gay rights, it was suggested by the front office that he should pipe down and when he didn’t, Kluwe was out of a job and out of the league. If Sam becomes the go-to guy for what the gay athletes position is, it’s not going to be well-received in the locker room in St. Louis or NFL headquarters in New York.
While Sam deserved a shot and thought he should have been drafted higher, he pretty much went where he was supposed to go. Sam is a classic “tweener.” Not big enough to play on the line and not fast or intuitive enough to play linebacker. Even if he hadn’t been drafted there are reports he would have received invitations as an undrafted free agent from no less than four teams.
What Sam has said he wanted most was exactly what he got. He wanted to be treated like just another football player and nothing special. It seems that wasn’t true now and while he’s still worth pulling for, his status as an underdog has given way to that of a savvy hustler, and that’s a little disappointing. The burden is on him to prove he’s not just hype, but a change agent on the football field, not reality TV.
Michael Sam could be another Jackie Robinson, but if he doesn’t watch it he could end up as the next Tim Tebow.