In the quiet battle between the NFL and the Oprah Winfrey Network, score one for the footballers.
The network has shelved a planned documentary chronicling the journey of Michael Sam as he attempts to go from being the first openly gay player drafted to the first openly gay player in the league.
“After careful consideration and discussion with the St. Louis Rams, ‘The Untitled Michael Sam Project’ has been postponed, allowing Michael the best opportunity to achieve his dream of making the team,” Erik Logan, the network’s president, said in a statement. “It’s clear that we, along with the world, recognize the important opportunity that Michael now has in this moment. We will continue to support him in his journey to earn a spot playing for the Rams.”
There were concerns from the moment the Rams introduced their seventh-round draft pick to a crowd that included a number of members of the national media last Monday that his attempt to overcome long odds and make the team might be a distraction. Although Coach Jeff Fisher promised it would be football as usual, both the team and league were surprised by the announcement of the documentary Wednesday. The documentary was conceived as a six-to-eight-part series and OWN had not contacted the league or team to use footage or trademarks.
On Friday, Tony Dungy, the former coach who now is an NBC commentator, said he thought the arrangement would be a distraction — a dreaded word in coaching circles — and expressed reservations about the OWN relationship with Sam. The NFL likes its distractions well-managed and profitable, as with its HBO partnership on “Hard Knocks.”
“As a coach, you’re always hoping you don’t have that kind of thing,” he told ESPN’s Hannah Storm. “You want to stay focused on the task at hand, which is developing your football team and helping your players be the best they can be. You always want to limit the outside distractions. I was not a big fan of the ‘Hard Knocks’ series or anything that brought extra attention to the team because I thought it was a distraction and I think this will be for the Rams, as well.”
It’s a shame, because Sam’s story is fascinating and, if he makes the final 53-man roster, the story will be even more historic and inspirational. But he has to make the team.
“This [postponement] will allow for Michael to have a total focus on football, and will ensure no distractions to his teammates,” Cameron Weiss, Sam’s agent, said. “Everybody involved remains committed to this project and understands its historical importance as well as its positive message.”