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Michael Sam, Oprah and the danger of thinking reality TV is the answer

Within four days of Michael Sam being drafted by the St. Louis Rams on May 10, Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network announced they had signed the athlete to a reality show deal. On paper, it seemed like a natural move. Sam was making headlines around the world as the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team. With all of that attention and potential for big ratings, why wouldn’t a reality show (or a “docu-series,” as OWN framed it) be the next step?

That thought process often gets people into trouble, and this was no exception. The whole project fell apart and will now air in the form of a 90-minute special — followed by an interview between Oprah and Sam — on Saturday night, buried in the depths of low-rated Christmas weekend. As it turned out, given that Sam was cut from the Rams, it’s the ideal way to tell the story. But the whole embarrassing debacle around the-show-that-never-happened proves the danger in thinking that reality TV is the answer when you have a compelling subject.

The show’s downfall started almost immediately, when the reality series idea (sorry, “docu-series”) was met with a resounding “What were they thinking?!” Sam’s new teammates were also reportedly unhappy by the thought of extra cameras everywhere. The series promised to show an inside look at Sam trying to make the team, but as a seventh-round draft pick, shouldn’t his focus be the field and not cameras?

“It does him no favors to be part of this, but here we are anyway, and everything feels just a little icky,” wrote Drew Magary of Deadspin. “Our first openly gay player in the NFL is a total abstraction, a commercial for himself, an actor named Michael Sam playing the role of ‘Michael Sam’ on ‘The Michael Sam Show.'”

Sure enough, about 48 hours after the announcement, OWN and the NFL announced the series was indefinitely postponed. “This will allow for Michael to have total focus on football, and will ensure no distractions to his teammates,” Sam’s agent said in a statement, though adding that no one was totally giving up on the idea: “Everybody involved remains committed to project and understands its historical importance as well as its positive message.”

Now that the project is finally airing months later as a “documentary” over Christmas weekend that guarantees low viewership, nothing worked out the way anyone would have hoped. That includes Sam, who was cut by the Rams before the NFL season started. After spending about two months on the Dallas Cowboys practice squad, he was waived and is now a free agent. The struggles might have made for good television, but likely not what he wanted broadcast to the world to showcase his start in professional football.

With all that in mind, the special and interview seems like the proper amount of time to spend on Sam’s journey: The preview clips released already prove to be compelling, such as Sam disclosing to Oprah that closeted gay players have thanked him for his bravery in publicly coming out.

And that’s really the lesson here — this kind of conversation is important to have, and for viewers to see. There was never any need to ramp up the drama by announcing a reality show to get even more attention. That simply leads to a vicious cycle: Though you can bill a reality show as shining light on an important issue, it often winds up being more of a distraction than anything else.