NEW YORK – The handsome football player gets drafted by an NFL team, plants an emotional kiss on his sweetheart and gives sportscasts a feel-good video clip.
It’s a scene that plays out for dozens of draft picks.
But when a sobbing Michael Sam celebrated his selection by the St. Louis Rams by hugging and kissing his partner, another man, it made real and physical that an openly gay athlete had taken an unprecedented step toward an NFL career.
For some, the reaction was joy. For others, there was dismay or even anger. For the networks that carried and repeatedly aired the scene, it was business as usual.
Producer Seth Markman, who oversees NFL draft coverage for ESPN, said in the extensive preparation for Sam’s possible draft, “we never had one discussion about, ‘What if he’s drafted, his partner’s there and they kiss?’ Honestly, it never came up.”
He suggested a possible generational split over how much it matters.
“When I got home last night and saw the attention (it was receiving), it kind of threw me,” he said. “We’re a young production crew, and quite honestly, it was just another moment in the years we’ve done this.
“In the truck, we were only saying, ‘Wow, this is great emotion here.’ No one stepped up and said, ‘Oh, wow, do we really want to be showing this?’”
The same holds true for the NFL Network, which had an agreement to show the video taken by ESPN at the San Diego home of Sam’s agent and first aired by Disney-owned ESPN.
“We had no discussion on the NFL Network side about how or how much or how little we would show, if or when Michael was selected,” said Mike Muriano, NFL Network senior coordinating producer.
“We were certainly not blind or deaf to the cultural significance,” but draft day can be similarly life-changing for all the players and those close to them, he said. “We try to tap into that with all these kids.”
Timing amplified and extended the story’s play on both networks since it came near the draft’s conclusion, and the networks could stick with Sam instead of quickly moving on to another pick.
If the display of affection had been edited by ESPN, Markman said, it would have been inconsistent with more than three decades of draft-day coverage that includes a long string of players kissing their girlfriends.
“We’re there to document the moment, not make a political statement,” he said.
Kate Ellis, president and CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said she was thrilled ESPN and the NFL Network carried the couple’s display of affection.
“As media and corporations continue to embrace and support LGBT people, it’s almost second nature that there isn’t a mechanism to think twice about, ‘Could that be controversial, is that overstepping?’” Ellis said.
The growth of gay marriage and news coverage of ceremony-sealing kisses by gay and lesbian couples has become increasingly commonplace. The quick pecks between Sam and his partner, former Missouri varsity swimmer Vito Cammisano – they even shared cake, wedding style – were similar, but different.
Context is everything, and the context is the hyper-manly sport of football, where muscles and toughness reign and, until Sam, the only sexuality openly displayed was hetero.
“The definition of masculinity shifted today, whether consciously or not, because during the hyper-masculine NFL draft, a man kissed another man on national television. The NFL and the media are expanding everyone’s consciousness,” said Wade Davis, a former NFL player who is the executive director of You Can Play Project, an advocacy group aimed at getting homophobia out of sports.
To write off negative reaction as bigotry is to oversimplify it, he said.
“People are used to seeing two people being intimate during the NFL draft. Just not these two people,” said Davis, who is gay. “It’s not necessarily people being homophobic. I think people push back naturally because it’s so much out of the norm.”
Sam’s embrace of Cammisano was instinctive, not a plotted-out statement, said Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com and public relations expert who has been working with Sam.
“Once you make that leap as a gay person (to come out), you want to live your life openly and freely and not use a filter of what’s appropriate according to social norms,” Bragman said Saturday, adding, “If today is about anything, it’s about being able to do that and being authentic.”
Reaction to the video was mostly positive, Muriano said, although he acknowledged the expression of gay affection is at odds with some people’s beliefs. Some online postings deplored the kiss as inappropriate for family viewing; others were even harsher in their distaste.
But it’s inevitable, Muriano said, that for football, and sports in general, “it’s an image that will last.”
Sam, who was not certain to be drafted and was taken with the 249th overall pick out of 256, still has to prove himself to make the team. But he’s already helping to make a difference off the field.
When Markman’s wife explained to their 7-year-old son that dad was busy working on something that was controversial – Sam’s kiss on TV – the boy replied: “Is it because they’re not married?”
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.