How Sports Illustrated Botched the Michael Sam Story

The stadium scene.
Feb. 12 2014 4:52 PM

How Sports Illustrated Botched the Michael Sam Story

The bad journalism that has everyone convinced the NFL isn’t ready for a gay player.

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Moreover, by offering anonymity, King, Thamel, and Evans were actually encouraging their sources to talk smack about Sam. That is, they were encouraging them to think of this as a horrifically complicated situation—that the presence of a gay player on an NFL team is so deeply fraught they couldn’t possibly be expected to affix their names to an opinion about it. The notion that Sam could fall in the draft because teams worry about the unknown isn’t controversial at all. It’s true, even understandable. But if both reporter and source were convinced that anything but a politically correct opinion would be pilloried, and therefore anonymity was essential for any conversation to occur, that set some pretty low expectations for the thought capacity of NFL executives. It also ensured SI would get what it was looking for: people who believe that Michael Sam in an NFL uniform is impossibly problematic.

King was slammed on Twitter and elsewhere, and the anonymous NFL execs have been slammed all over the place; players union boss DeMaurice Smith called them “gutless”. In a mailbag column on Tuesday, King said he had received “hundreds” of complaints about the anonymous quotes. “Which team has a bigot for a GM?” one reader wrote. “We won’t find out from your article because you let these cowards hide.” King donned a cloak of journalistic nobility. “I want to give readers as accurate a picture of what real people in the NFL are thinking, as pleasant or unpleasant as it may be,” he replied.

Yes, absolutely. But King didn’t give readers an accurate picture—he gave them a partial and exaggerated one. He has the thickest Rolodex in the business, but he talked to only four people, and his colleagues talked to eight. In a league as large and diverse as the NFL, 12 is not a definitive sample. The SI stories offered no counterbalancing opinion or analysis, so the message was clear: This is the NFL party line. No one will talk on the record. And if anyone does, don’t trust him. “I will guarantee you the ones who answer will sugarcoat their answers,” King wrote.

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While King was assuming, the following NFL executives commented on the record on Sunday night and the days following: New York Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, Denver Broncos football operations executive vice president John Elway, Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy, Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf, Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass, Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, and Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery. (I may have missed someone.) They praised Sam’s decision to come out. They said they would evaluate him on football merits alone. They said their organizations would have no problem hiring an openly gay player.

Maybe King’s cynical “guarantee” is correct, and their words are in fact sugarcoated and meaningless. Maybe Mara, Tisch, Kraft, Belichick, Elway, and McCarthy—among the most successful and influential owners, coaches, and former players with the NFL’s most prestigious franchises—are all lying. If Sam goes undrafted, maybe they will dissemble that he “wasn’t a good fit for the organization” or “we had pressing needs at other positions.” But an on-the-record interview with any of those executives on the night the story broke would have balanced the anonymous speculation and armchair sociology that shaped an instant counter-narrative.

Reporting on deadline is hard. The SI staffers had to tread carefully because they didn’t want to out Sam before 8 p.m. Sometimes you have to go with what you’ve got. And their stories were part of a bigger package of solid reportage: an interview with Sam by Wertheim; a column by former NFL executive Andrew Brandt that explains NFL front-office thinking without any sensationalism; a first-person commentary by gay former NFL cornerback Wade Davis. SI also put Sam on the cover of this week’s magazine. The accompanying story by S.L. Price does reuse the “man’s-man” quote from the anonymous player personnel assistant. But it’s one idea in a lengthy, detailed, and nuanced study of Sam’s past, present, and future, and the next paragraph begins, “Yet maybe it doesn’t have to be like that.”

Some writers have been beaten down by NFL hypocrisy. I think Sam gets drafted and I think he makes a roster. Surely the defensive player of the year in college football’s most dominant conference is the equal of the undrafted free agents who run around on NFL special teams. The institutional pressure—from commissioner Roger Goodell, who has a gay brother, to progressive-minded owners like Kraft, Mara, Tisch, and others—to welcome Sam to the league will be great. NFL clubs are pragmatic, but they’re not uniformly retrograde. Owners have different priorities than scouts and personnel assistants. They want to win, but they can see the arc of history bending, too.

This story also appeared in Deadspin.

More from Deadspin on Michael Sam:

Correction, Feb. 18, 2014: This story originally included a photo of Missouri football player Marvin Norman, who was misidentified as Michael Sam. The photo has been replaced.

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Email him at sfatsis9@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.