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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?)

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