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.

Michael Sam
Michael Sam recovers a fumble for a touchdown against the Georgia Bulldogs on Oct. 12, 2013.

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Journalism isn’t hard. You watch something and describe it. You read something and paraphrase it. You have a conversation with someone and transcribe it.

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

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 Hang Up and Listen

Journalism is incredibly hard. You have to deconstruct events, statements and conversations. You have to evaluate them for reliability and relevance. You have to present them in a logical fashion. You have to find meaning and establish context. 

Which brings us to Sports Illustrated, Peter King, and NFL prospect Michael Sam.

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In an orchestrated rollout at 8 p.m. on Sunday, the New York Times and ESPN released stories in which Sam announced that he is gay. Outsports simultaneously posted a behind-the-scenes narrative about Sam’s decision. When big news breaks, trailing media have to scramble the jets. This was different. Sam and his team—two agents, a Hollywood publicist, and Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler, who wrote the tick-tock story—had planned the multipronged release for Monday. But Sam’s sexuality was an open secret, and media outlets were on the trail. On Friday, Zeigler received a call from SI executive editor Jon Wertheim. “Sports Illustrated knew everything and they wanted to break the story,” Zeigler wrote. “Wertheim graciously played ball and agreed to not jump the gun.”

The gun was moved up to Sunday. As soon as it sounded, SI was ready to go. At 8:21, it posted a reaction story by Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans headlined “How will news that Michael Sam is gay affect his NFL draft stock?” Thamel and Evans reported that they spoke with “eight NFL executives and coaches.” They granted them anonymity in exchange for “their honesty.”

One asserted there was “no question” Sam would fall in the draft. Another said “his numbers are inflated.” A third said an openly gay player would “chemically imbalance” a locker room because football is “still a man’s-man game”; the NFL wouldn’t be ready for one until “the coming decade or two.” A fourth—an expert on the personal decision-making process of a gay man whose sexual orientation had been carefully protected in college but who was on the verge of being outed—said Sam’s proclamation was “not a smart move.” Staying in the closet and lying to job interviewers would have been much smarter.

The most laugh-out-loud quote crammed a closetful of stereotypes, bigotries, and dated locutions into one paragraph. It’s not that NFL front offices are “against gay people,” this source assured Thamel and Evans. It’s that “some players” will “look you upside down” if you draft Sam. (Don’t blame us football people! Blame the players!) “Every Tom, Dick, and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to The Today Show.” (If Red Smith or the Saturday Evening Post send a telex requesting a press pass, don’t give ’em one!)

Who the hell did SI interview? The draft-room codgers in Moneyball? George Preston Marshall?

But the issue here isn’t the ungrounded and outdated opinions of a few off-the-record soothsayers. It’s about whether they deserved a platform in the first place, and whether the conclusions drawn from their words were a reasonable reflection of a broader reality.

At first glance, the sources are an impressive bunch. “Executives and coaches” implies high-level responsibility. And eight is a lot, right? But take a closer look. The six cited in the piece are identified as “an NFL player personnel assistant,” “a veteran NFL scout,” “one scout,” “a scout,” “one former NFL general manager,” and “an NFL assistant coach.”

That’s a bunch of second-tier personnel and coaching staffers, and one guy who isn’t in the league anymore. Not a single one of those people will make the final call on whether to draft Michael Sam, and they may not have any meaningful influence at all. But Thamel and Evans drew some very big conclusions from their comments. NFL locker rooms are “not prepared to deal with an openly gay player.” Sam’s path to the league will be “daunting.” Sam faces “long odds” and a “lonely path.” He will trigger a “publicity circus.”

It’s not only possible but likely that, again, not a single one of those assertions will come to pass. But with its first-out-of-the-gate story, SI helped shift, or at least bifurcate, the conversation. The Times and ESPN owned the news. SI owned the instant reality check: The NFL is institutionally bigoted; Michael Sam isn’t that good; Michael Sam isn’t worth the trouble; Michael Sam is on his own; good friggin’ luck, Michael Sam. The comments in SI rocketed around the Web. The Los Angeles Times published a story devoting one paragraph to the announcement and 10 to the SI quotes. The echo chamber was open for business.

Meanwhile, Peter King was working the phones. At 10:44 p.m., King tweeted his 1.25 million followers that his Monday Morning Quarterback column had posted with more reaction to the Sam news, “some of it harsh.” The column featured comments from three general managers and a scout. One GM said Sam’s sexual preference wouldn’t be an issue on his team but would be on others. There was more deflection—“Unfortunately … locker rooms are still stuck in the ’50s” (an assertion, by the way, that’s highly debatable)—as well as some serious trashing of Sam’s ability and a prediction by one GM that Sam won’t be drafted at all. King tweeted the juiciest remarks.

Like his colleagues, King gave his sources cover. Worse, he admitted that he didn’t even try to get them on the record:

I spoke to all anonymously, because with such a touchy subject, I assumed all would either no-comment me (and one other GM did) or say something so sanitized it wouldn’t really be the truth. I don’t like to do anonymous sources to write an entire story, but I felt in this case it would give the best information possible.

King assumed they wouldn’t comment on the record so he granted anonymity up front? Maybe my journalistic principles are stuck in the ’50s, but that’s a newsroom no-no. You grant anonymity to get information or to understand background and context. You don’t let a source trash someone anonymously. King wrote that anonymity “would give the best information possible.” But he didn’t give information, only blind, unchallenged opinion. If his sources had spoken on the record and said something mealy-mouthed or had outright lied, King would have performed a journalistic service far greater than letting them shiv Michael Sam in his pursuit of “the truth.”

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