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February 13, 2014

Sports Illustrated’s Michael Sam “Coming Out” Cover: Gay Alien or Perfectly Macho?

Michael Sam Sports Illustrated cover

So, Sports Illustrated got slammed this week for unnecessary roughness. For being anti-PC. For using a small set of lesser and anonymous pigskin-industry sources to predict social, personal and professional disaster for Michael Sam, the Missouri defensive star who “came out” on the doorstep of an NFL career.
But the question is: did that skepticism, paranoia even, color this cover? Was the attempt here to illustrate, pulling one of the quotes, a guy who “would chemically unbalance” a locker room?

We do, in this case, have some words about the cover. USA Today has this description and quote from Sports Illustrated managing editor Chris Stone:

The photo they chose is a file photo of him pointing directly at the lens.

“We went through a bunch of pictures of him and that photo was just so striking,” Stone said. “(It seemed like) he had a very direct message and that photo displayed someone who is very confident.”

So what are we looking at: Sam the alien or the picture of confidence?

Since we were meeting for coffee, I ran the question past one of my new friends in Berkeley, a guy whose had a long career as one of those Mad Men. Emphasizing how well outfits like SI know their audience, he was doubtful — contrary to the tone of the story — that the photo was disparaging at all. Rather, he imagined SI was picturing Sam in a completely normative way … when it comes to professional football players — in other words, as one more in-your-face, adrenaline-charged gladiator.

I think my friend and advertising vet is probably right. Sure, the quotes in the article are blatantly prejudiced and homophobic. Take this one, for example:

“I don’t think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet,” said an NFL player personnel assistant. “In the coming decade or two, it’s going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it’s still a man’s-man game.

What the quote illustrates more than anything though is a simple binary. You’re either “a scary, awesome beast” (that won’t tolerate whining), if you catch the drift, or you’re, well … not SI cover material. Sam’s cover quote seems to also back up my friend, the Mad Man, as it states:

“If I was walking down the street and someone asked me if I was gay, I would’ve told them I was gay. I wasn’t afraid.”

Right, like he wouldn’t be a sissy about it (translating into caveman vernacular). In other words (and in spite of whatever poisoned the article), the Sam who’s pictured here is not only not afraid of telling you he’s gay, he’s all macho about it.

(photo credit: couldn’t find it. When are these media companies going to make photo credits mandatory online?)

  • bks3bks
  • black_dog_barking

    It would probably be informative to dig up contemporary quotations from baseball professionals involved in Jackie Robinson’s entry into the lily white world of Major League Baseball just after the end of World War 2. I’m pretty sure their content would be very similar to the “I don’t think football is ready …” and the variations on that theme. Change is hard, yep.

    To me the guy in that photo looks way more scared than scary. Scary is a thousand yard stare. The wide eyes don’t match the intimidation intended by the pointing finger.

  • Thomas

    Nike, whose logo is at the very center of the composition here, recently formed a PAC to fund support for the gay marriage initiative in Oregon, and kicked in about three hundred thousand dollars to get it started. So there’s no question about the political/marketing positions being staked out in the executive offices of the industrial sports complex. The demographics and spending habits all point toward a consensus, so my guess is that—in addition to the entrenched heteronormative tradition—a fair amount of the grumbling in the NFL about Sam is hierarchical resentment at having a player drive the narrative. Coaches wince at players saying how things are going to be, bosses hate surprise announcements, producers fret when performers go off script and improvise.

    The individual Michael Sam story arc is going to be interesting to watch, but it is also at least as interesting to watch these entertainment / sales giants that have become such incredibly powerful cultural institutions get more comfortable in their role as spiritual advisors and moral educators. We don’t look to Nike or the NFL for guidance on abortion or assisted suicide, but may yet. And why not? If they can lead us to healing through Tiger Woods’ confessional, to learn forgiveness of sacrificial concussions and dog fights, perhaps we can find in their endorsement deals and player conduct contracts a foundation for moral judgment more modern and sophisticated than anything by Thomas Aquinas. Corporate sports are at the very center of the culture so there is an irrefutable expectation that they perform this function. I have all the faith in the world that the value systems of Nike, SI, NFL et al will prove flexible enough to accommodate as many paying customers as possible.

  • Scarabus

    I thought it might be interesting to compare this to a still from Michael Sherman’s explosion after the SF game. Couldn’t find a good one right off, though.

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