The phone rang Sunday night at the usual time. It was my oldest son, Mitchell, calling home.
Mitchell is a freshman journalism student and swimmer at the University of Missouri, and on Sunday nights we usually catch up on matters great and small. This past Sunday, there was one topic I was eager to discuss – just a couple hours earlier, star Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam had publicly come out as a gay man.
"How about the Michael Sam news?" I asked him.
Mitchell knew Sam as a passing acquaintance, a gregarious guy who would occasionally eat a meal and share a laugh with the swimmers at the Missouri Athletic Training Center. So I was curious to hear my son's take on the revelation that suddenly swept the nation.
"Yeah," Mitchell answered nonchalantly. "Pretty much all the athletes knew."
And pretty much all the Missouri athletes didn't care. Nor, apparently, did most of the rest of the Missouri student body.
"It just wasn't a very big deal," my son said.
That is the biggest reason why, even in these endlessly invasive times, a gay Southeastern Conference football star was a non-story for months. Because young people today do not see it as salacious or sensational. They see it as personal and largely unremarkable.
That is the modern reality. Young people in America really don't care who you sleep with. But there were other factors that went into turning a vial of nitroglycerine into tap water. Biggest among them: a locker room that came together in support of a popular and impactful teammate; a respectful, protective response by the Mizzou coaching staff and athletic administration; and, despite the current click-hungry climate, a prudent approach from the media that regularly covers Missouri football.
"It's amazing in this day and age that nobody said anything," Mizzou media relations director Chad Moller said. "It's about unfathomable to me that Michael's hand didn't get forced."
There were a series of key moments and decisions that were made over the previous eight months that allowed this momentous life event to play out the way Michael Sam wanted it to. At every turn, individuals involved prioritized privacy and propriety over publicity.
On a Friday night in August, Greg Bowers was driving home for dinner with the assumption that he would be back in his office at the Columbia Missourian later that night, editing one of the biggest stories of his life.
Bowers is the sports editor of the Missourian, the journalism school's newspaper. It is a real-world classroom – a daily, county-wide paper that is written, edited and designed by students as part of their classwork, with their full-time editors serving as teachers. The practical experience gained at the Missourian is one of the reasons Mizzou is considered one of the pre-eminent journalism schools in the country.
On that August night, Bowers knew that one of his graduate students, Erik Hall, had lined up a momentous interview. He was going to talk to Michael Sam about life as a gay football player.
The interview was the result of some classic editor-reporter brainstorming. Hall had heard about Russian president Vladimir Putin's anti-gay stance heading into the Winter Olympics and wanted to write about it, but Bowers found the story idea to be too vague to resonate with the local readership. Some reporting needed to be done to bring the topic home to mid-Missouri.
Bowers' suggestion: find some local gay athletes to interview on the topic.
Hall did some research and came back with some names. Among them: Michael Sam. Word was starting to ripple – around town, online – that he was gay.
Sam was a senior starter for the Tigers – a good player, but not one of the headliners on a veteran team. Still, football players are probably the most visible people on a campus of 34,000 students. If he would do the interview, it would be major news.
Hall asked Sam if he would talk to him about being gay. To Bowers' shock, Sam said he would.
A period of indecision ensued. Sam backed out of the interview, then said he would do it, then backed out again, then finally agreed. The interview was set for 7 p.m. on that Friday August night.
It never happened. About an hour before the scheduled sit-down, Sam called Hall and said he wasn't ready to go through with it. On the verge of his senior year, he reconsidered one final time.
"It was frustrating," Bowers said. "As a journalist, you want the story. We absolutely wanted the story."
But even though this would have been a massive national scoop, the Missourian refrained from reporting what it knew to be true after the interview was called off. There was only one way to do that story, and reporting it without the main character was not it. The paper was not going to unilaterally out Michael Sam.
"We weren't going to do it without his participation," Bowers said. "We talked about it, and it wouldn't have been right. This was his story.
"There are other media outlets that probably would have run with it. We're a journalism school. I'm not claiming we do always do the right thing, but we always try to do the right thing."
Sam promised the Missourian that it would get its interview when the time was right for him to come out. But then the season started, and the moment was lost amid a swirl of surprising victories and stellar play by a breakout star.
The first time rumors of a gay Mizzou football player came to Chad Moller's ears was actually two months before the Missourian nearly broke the story. Another writer, who had covered the program for years, approached Moller in June with a rumor he had heard.
Moller said the reporter did not name the player, and he did not ask for the name. The reporter said he hoped to be the one to tell the player's story, and wondered how the school would handle such a thing.
From that day forward, Moller began mentally preparing for a situation unlike any he'd handled in his career.
Despite the heightened awareness, nothing came of it until that August. That's when Sam broke the dam, telling a position coach and a small group of his teammates during a team-building meeting that he was gay.
The news had been an open secret – Sam was not hiding his sexual orientation, and a few of his teammates already knew. But this first step in publicly acknowledging his homosexuality drastically changed the dynamic.
What had been known by a few and whispered by several suddenly became fact for 127 Missouri football players, their coaches and support staff. The collective response by that diverse group was heartening. There was not 100 percent approval, but there was widespread acceptance – and nobody took it upon himself to out Sam outside the football complex.
"People think it's a distraction when he came out," said Pat Ivey, assistant director for athletic performance at Mizzou. "For us, the distraction left when he came out [to his teammates]. Some of his teammates knew, and there had been rumors. When everyone knew and he saw the support his coaches gave him, the administration, and most importantly his teammates – when he saw the protection and acceptance – that right there is when Michael said, 'Wow, this really is my family.' "
Head coach Gary Pinkel is an old-school guy, a 61-year-old who idolized his former coach, the late Don James. Everything about his coaching style flows from what he learned as a player and assistant under the former Washington Huskies legend.
But this was a decidedly new-school situation, and Pinkel was up to the challenge. In his buttoned-down manner, Pinkel cited the athletic department core value of respect for all and set the tone for how Sam would be accepted. Then he asked Ivey to speak with Sam about how the player wanted to handle the public aspect of this life change.
"We knew the impact this was going to have," Ivey said. "We made sure he knew we had his back, no matter what he wanted to do. He said he just wanted to think about football right now."
From the top of the Mizzou athletic department down, the news was greeted with support. Quiet support. Nobody went blabbing externally; they just closed ranks around Sam internally.
"Michael came in my office in August and said, 'I just want to tell you something,' " athletic director Mike Alden said. "After he told me I just said, 'Gosh, I appreciate you telling me that. I love you and I'm proud of you and go get 'em.'
"Then I think he went and got pizza. We just went along."
Moller said the only time he counseled Sam was when the Missourian interview was looming. Moller explained to Sam what the likely chain of events would be after the story broke. It would be a life-altering wave of publicity that could overwhelm a football season that Sam hoped would propel him toward an NFL career.
"There was a point where he was going to do it and get it over with," Moller said. "But he was worried it was going to be a distraction to the team. This was a year where we had a lot to prove and we had a chance to do something special, so he decided against it.
"It was so organic the rest of the way. I know it's hard to believe, but there was no organized effort to suppress it."
The news was not suppressed. But at precisely the time Michael Sam became a national football star, he simultaneously disappeared.
Halfway through the football season, Missouri was a surprising 5-0 and playing at Georgia. In the press box before the game, St. Louis Post-Dispatch beat writer Dave Matter finally addressed the elephant on the beat with a fellow reporter.
He knew Michael Sam was gay. It turned out the other reporter knew as well. And neither of them could figure out how to address the story.
This is the kind of blockbuster news a reporter will keep to himself, just in case his competition on the beat doesn't know. But after several futile weeks, the two writers finally shared notes.
"After that the dam broke," Matter said. "We talked about it all the time."
They were among nearly half a dozen people who had tried during the fall to get Moller to provide access to Sam, but he had gone underground. Sam had never been eager to do interviews in previous years, and now he shut down almost entirely in order to keep his non-secret from becoming a national event.
A class conflict spared Sam from having to attend Missouri's weekly Monday press conferences, and Moller simply declined to make him available after most games. As Sam's sack totals skyrocketed, that became an unpopular stance.
"I'm taking heat from reporters who are saying, 'This guy is having an All-American year, why can't I talk to him?' " Moller recalled. "He didn't want to have to lie to anybody or deal with that issue during the year."
On the few occasions Sam was available, it was always a group setting. Nobody was likely to blurt out a highly personal question in that situation.
"We talked to him after one bowl practice in his pads," Matter said. "Not really the time to ask, 'Hey, are you gay?' "
Stories about Sam's on-field exploits still had to be written, though. Which meant his teammates were bombarded with questions.
"They were probably asked about him more than anyone has ever been asked about a teammate, because he wasn't talking," Matter said. "Several times when the topic of Michael came up, a guy would pause and look around the room, like, 'Oh, no, are they going to ask me?' "
But the questions never came. And even if they had, the Tigers were not going to push their teammate where he wasn't ready to go.
"No one wanted to hurt him and no one felt it was our issue," Ivey said. "Why would I make something public that he's not hiding? I think a lot of us wondered if it's really possible to keep something like that out of the media in this day and age. We all learned yes."
The stories about Sam's sexuality were never written by those who were closest to the team. Instead, the local writers suspected that once Michael Sam was done with Missouri football, the story would fall into the hands of his agents and become the province of the national media – which is exactly what happened.
"Last Sunday (when the news broke), about two percent of you thinks, 'Damn, I wish I had that,' " Matter said. "Then you stop and think, 'This is Michael's story to tell the way he wants.' "
The story was told on the biggest of national stages – in exclusive interviews with The New York Times, ESPN and Sports Illustrated. But Sam also remembered his promise to the Missourian, and granted the school paper an interview as well Sunday night.
He is on the cover of this week's SI, the face of a new era in American sports. He is the personification of breaking barriers and breaking news.
But on campus, Michael Sam's sexuality is both old news and no news at all. In the ultimate sign of changing times, the biggest story in American sports was a non-story at its source.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Michael Sam
- University of Missouri