How Sports Illustrated Botched the Michael Sam Story

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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 Slate's sports podcast Hang Up and Listen. Email him at sfatsis9@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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.

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.”

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.

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.