When University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay in February, Sports Illustrated immediately published a piece anonymously quoting NFL insiders who said Sam’s sexuality would negatively impact his draft stock. One of the reasons they posed was that the first openly gay player would create a media firestorm that teams couldn’t — or wouldn’t want to — handle. In the words of one of the insiders, “Every Tom, Dick and Harry in the media is going to show up, from Good Housekeeping to the Today show. A general manager is going to ask, ‘Why are we going to do that to ourselves?’”
There were always reasons to think those concerns were dubious. And now, thanks to Jason Collins, the openly gay NBA player who signed with the Brooklyn Nets two weeks ago, we can test whether there was any truth to the idea that an openly gay player would create that firestorm. Slate’s Josh Levin crunched the coverage numbers around Collins’ return to the NBA and how he’s been treated by the media since, and — surprise, surprise — that media freak-out some NFL (and maybe some NBA) insiders worried about is a total myth. Levin’s findings (his piece also features a graph showing a big drop in Collins on Google Trends):
I searched Lexis-Nexis for all English-language news stories with “Jason Collins” in the headline. Here are the day-by-day results since Feb. 22, the day before Collins signed with Brooklyn.
Feb. 22: 2
Feb. 23 (Collins signs with the Nets, plays against the Lakers): 57
Feb. 24 (the day after Collins’ first game): 116
Feb. 25: 10
Feb. 26 (Collins’ second game): 7
Feb. 27 (Collins’ third game): 4
Feb. 28 (Collins meets Matthew Shepard’s parents): 31
Mar. 1 (Collins’ fourth game): 4
Mar. 2: 6
Mar. 3 (Collins’ Brooklyn debut): 7
That’s about what you’d expect — lots of coverage around his first game, his first home game, and small bumps when there are notable moments, such as when he met with Shepard’s parents. Those types of coverage bumps will continue to occur at different times, like if Collins appears at LGBT sports events or marches in more gay pride parades or something else. But they’ll all pale in comparison to the first day of coverage, because that was the major event.
That an openly gay NBA player didn’t cause a long-running media phenomenon isn’t all that shocking. It’s what happened when Robbie Rogers, who came out as gay in January 2013, returned to Major League Soccer for the first time after his announcement too. Rogers’ debut for the Los Angeles Galaxy, which made him the first openly gay man in any of the big American pro sports leagues, led ESPN’s SportsCenter and was heralded throughout the sports media. Then it was gone.
Granted, MLS is a much smaller stage than the NBA, and the NBA is a relatively small stage compared to the NFL, and Sam will generate more coverage because of the timing of his announcement. There will be coverage when he gets drafted, and more if and when he makes a team in August and plays in his first game in the fall. But those are still short-lived stories, especially around a player who isn’t actively feeding the media beast. Sam, as he’s said, simply wants to play football. And even given the bigger stage, the media dynamic is still largely the same. It simply isn’t interesting to write the same story over and over again, or to write about the first gay goal in MLS, the first gay basket in the NBA, or the first gay touchdown or interception or tackle or whatever it is in the NFL. There just isn’t much to cover.
Unless there’s a rash of negative backlash. As I wrote when the NFL first missed its chance to welcome an openly gay player, it’s not all media coverage that scares the NFL or other leagues, it’s negative media coverage it could bring on itself:
Rather, what NFL teams fear is the potential negative coverage that could come with it. The media will write stories when players talk trash about gay players, when they say they aren’t ready, when they make homophobic comments. The media will write stories if fans treat the player poorly. If the player isn’t performing up to his past standards, perhaps there will be questions about whether the player was simply an affirmative action hire, a publicity stunt to sell tickets. An idiot on talk radio will make those claims or say the league isn’t ready or blame a team’s loss on the distraction of having a gay player around. They fear what will happen if a gay player gets hazed or bullied. With an openly gay player, those stories will only seem worse, the teams surmise. And if a team decides to cut a player who is gay, the media will question whether it was a legit roster decision or motivated by discrimination.
But again, most of those problems were already happening without Sam or Collins. We’ve already had homophobic comments. We’ve already had a bullying scandal. We already have NFL teams asking embarrassing questions about players’ sexuality — in violation of the league’s non-discrimination policy — or about their girlfriends.
Even if these players did turn into media phenomena, that’s hardly a reason not to welcome them. Smart teams in the NFL and other leagues, as NFL veteran Donte’ Stallworth wrote here, deal with different types of so-called distractions every season and know how to keep them from affecting on-field performance. Now, though, even the teams that aren’t strong enough to address those problems head-on have definitive proof that the media storm they fear is little more than a myth. If anonymous NFL insiders or anyone else aren’t ready to welcome a gay player in their midst, it’s time for them to find a new excuse — or address the fact that their fears of media distractions are simply an attempt to legitimize their own discomfort with players like Michael Sam and Jason Collins.