The Minds behind the Michael Sam Story: Publicizing the Gay Athlete
Howard Bragman knows PR. His most recent project put all his knowledge and experience to the test, and he aced it. He and journalist friend Cyd Ziegler made a giant behind-the-scenes contribution to LGBT history by telling Michael Sam’s story.
Note: This is an article I wrote for Yahoo Voices in the first days following the Michael Sam announcement last February. Yahoo Voices was shut down on July 31, so the article is republished here.
By Adam Zielonka
Howard Bragman only overlooked one detail in the entire project. When creating Michael Sam’s Twitter account last Sunday, he did not turn email notifications off.
But if waking up to 60,000 emails can be viewed as a blessing more than a curse, you know you’ve done a good job.
Later this year, it will likely become official: We will finally have an openly gay male athlete active in one of the four major North American professional sports leagues, as soon as Sam, a defensive end from Missouri, makes an NFL team’s roster. Sam came out as gay last weekend in a three-pronged media rollout orchestrated by Bragman, founder and chairman of the Los Angeles-based firm Fifteen Minutes Public Relations. Bragman’s plan for the announcement consisted of Sam’s television interview with ESPN, a print feature in the New York Times and a web story on Outsports.com by the site’s co-founder and Bragman’s close friend, Cyd Ziegler.
“I consider myself like the midwife,” says Bragman in a phone interview. “I get to deliver this amazing, extraordinary gift to somebody, to a person who feels like they have a weight lifted off their shoulders, who feels a sense of freedom, and it’s just a blessing for me to do this.”
Bragman, who is an openly gay man himself, was approached last month by Sam’s agents, Joe Barkett and Cameron Weiss of Empire Athletes. After a lunch meeting, the agents felt they had the right man for the job. Bragman is no small deal in the PR world. He may be better recognized as the “Spin Doctor” to viewers of HLN’s recently cancelled Showbiz Tonight. He is also the vice chairman of Reputation.com, an online reputation management company, and a correspondent for ABC News. His Disney-ABC connection is how Bragman met, worked with and befriended Chris Connelly, who went on to conduct ESPN’s Sam interview.
Bragman has sports people in his circle to use as sounding boards, including former Pittsburgh Pirates owner Kevin McClatchey (who came out as gay in 2012) and current part-owner of the New York Giants, Steve Tisch. But Ziegler is the big gun on the team.
“Cyd and I talk almost every day,” says Bragman. “Cyd was very important to me because he has in-depth knowledge of the sports world in a way I don’t and knows some of the nuances which I don’t have the luxury of knowing. He’s a great friend, a great guy to throw things off of.”
“Howard and I have worked together on [former NBA center] John Amaechi’s coming out and [former Middle Tennessee State kicker] Alan Gendreau’s coming out,” says Ziegler, “and anytime one of us have an athlete who wants to come out, we always talk to the other one. ‘Do you want to help with this? Do you want to be a part of the story? What role do you want to play?’ So Howard brought this to me, as we often do, and we just started figuring out what to do about it.”
Getting Ziegler and Outsports.com to cooperate with Bragman would be no issue, of course. The trick was to make sure ESPN was happy getting the television feature and New York Times was happy getting the print story – and to get them to agree to a simultaneous release.
“We got a conference call with the senior [executives] from both media outlets, and I said, ‘Listen, here’s the plan. We’ve given you both the story. You get this, you get this, we’re breaking together.’ And they both had extraordinary integrity, extraordinary respect for each other. They got all the time they needed to tell their stories and do it well, and it held.”
Bragman’s voice projects a humble confidence, coming from his decades of experience as a public relations practitioner, as he explains that he knew he held all the cards.
“This is just the first part of the story,” he says. “There’s the Combine, there’s his Pro Day, there’s the Draft, and if he gets drafted and when he gets drafted, there’s playing ball. This is a long story, and nobody wanted to risk not being part of it going forward by breaking the embargo.”
When Bragman left his meeting with Barkett and Weiss, knowing Sam was ready to come out, the first text message he sent was to Ziegler: “The eagle has landed.” This eventually became the title of Ziegler’s Outsports.com piece, which he said attracted more unique visitors to his site in one day than the site had gotten in the entire month of December.
Before that fateful text January 20, Ziegler was not aware of Sam. “I really hadn’t [heard rumors]. Michael Sam just really wasn’t on my radar screen,” he says. “There had been a couple whispers on the Internet, but unless you were looking for it, you were not gonna find it.”
That would soon change. The Senior Bowl, January 25 in Mobile, Ala., became a big turning point as Bragman and Ziegler talked to coaches and writers there.
“We found out at the Senior Bowl that most of the NFL coaches knew, a lot of media people knew,” says Bragman. “It wasn’t a deep dark secret.”
“We were getting bombarded with questions about whether there was a girlfriend around or whether he [would] hang out with girls. And those were very targeted questions,” Barkett told the Charlotte Observer. “Reporters were approaching Mike, some of whom were from very big publications. …Once Mobile happened, it was like, ‘OK, this has to happen much sooner rather than later.’ ”
Says Ziegler, “It hit in waves. The first wave was the end of that week, around January 23 or 24, when Howard and I started to realize how many people knew… We both found out at the same time that different people knew. So we said we gotta move this up before the Combine [to Monday, February 10], and then last Friday it became crystal clear that way more people, all of a sudden, knew. Something happened last week. Somebody spilled the beans last week. We don’t know who. Saturday night we started talking about moving it up [from Monday] to Sunday, and Sunday morning I woke up and my first email to Howard was, ‘I really think we’re making a mistake if we don’t move this up to this afternoon.’ ”
“Here’s the reality of it: This story was going to break. Whether we broke it or not, it was gonna break,” he says, adding that he “knew for a 2,000 percent fact” that some media outlets were ready to run the story had Sam’s camp hesitated. “To me, the first rule of PR is to get ahead of your story and define it yourself, before someone else does. Michael did not want somebody to ‘out’ him. He wanted to tell his truth in his words, in his time frame, in his time, which I applaud, and we had the chance to do that.”
Bragman knows that while Sam will be a historic icon, he is a football player first.
“If Michael starts to do 25 interviews and starts riding in every gay pride parade, and accepting every offer that comes our way,” says Bragman, “we run the real risk of looking like he’s more interested in activism and celebrity than playing football, and that’s not the case. Michael, the gay community, we all benefit from the day he walks out on the field in uniform as an openly gay man and plays good football. That’s the win-win-win here, so we wanted to enable that day.”
With that day’s arrival contingent on Sam first earning a roster spot, Bragman’s team is now focused on keeping the media away, not attracting them.
“I think the biggest challenge is keeping everybody away so [Sam] can get ready for the Combine, and get ready for his Pro Day and get ready for the Draft,” says Bragman, acknowledging that “it’s hard to say no to people who call you, who you recognize by one name.”
“We live in a world where things go so viral that it’s most important to go where your story is told well,” he says. “I’ve had situations where clients were selling books or records, and you want to do 5,000 interviews. You want to do as much as you can. But this wasn’t that case. This was a case where we wanted to tell our story, tell it well and then get Michael out of town and let him go back and get ready for the Combine.
“There’ll be plenty of time to do press if he starts playing pro football, believe me.”
Yes, that’s an if, not a when, as Bragman understands that there is no guarantee Sam will be drafted. The day after Sam came out, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King ran a piece for his website, MMQB.com, that quoted three anonymous general managers and a scout reacting to the Sam news. No longer are these questions about a hypothetical openly-gay football player; Sam has statistics to go with his persona. They include a 6’2, 255-pound frame, 11.5 sacks in 2013 and the award for SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year. Yet one GM and his team think Sam is overrated.
“We talked about it this week. First of all, we don’t think he’s a very good player,” the anonymous GM told King. “The reality is he’s an overrated football player in our estimation. Second: He’s going to have expectations about where he should be drafted, and I think he’ll be disappointed. He’s not going to get drafted where he thinks he should. The question you will ask yourself, knowing your team, is, ‘How will drafting him affect your locker room?’ And I am sorry to say where we are at this point in time, I think it’s going to affect most locker rooms. A lot of guys will be uncomfortable. Ten years from now, fine. But today, I think being openly gay is a factor in the locker room.”
This GM then told King he doesn’t think Sam will be drafted at all, despite being projected as a mid-round pick by everyone from Scouts, Inc. to ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr.
After his experience on the Sam team with Bragman, this kind of reaction did not surprise Ziegler, but he had choice words for those who would not put their names to the comments.
“[We did] a lot of reaching out to NFL teams to kind of gauge interest and gauge the effect that the story would have, as we were going through,” says Ziegler of the process. “There was a wide range of opinion that you’re now seeing spread on the Internet. So none of the stuff that’s being said now is much of a surprise [to Ziegler], even if it is disappointing that people would try to hide behind this stuff. And anonymous. It’s just ridiculous that people need to stay anonymous in the public realm.”
Perhaps there is an ounce of truth, however sad, in the GM’s comments. While he was a free agent in April 2013, twelve-year NBA veteran Jason Collins came out as gay in a Sports Illustrated cover story. No team has moved to sign him since, but whether that is because of his age and diminished talent or his sexuality is only speculation.
But Sam is not a 35-year-old vet whose best days are behind him. He’s a 24-year-old draft prospect with promise. And as more reaction is revealed, it’s clear that he has support from multiple NFL front offices. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told the Boston Herald, “We’re about winning, and anyone who can come in here and help us win, I personally don’t care what their ethnic background is, their racial background, their [sexual] preference. If they can help us win, and they’re about team first, then I’m happy to have him here.”
The Giants’ Tisch told TMZ Sports, “I hope any NFL team would not hesitate to draft Michael if he is right for their team.” One would assume that includes his own.
New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, talking to the Huffington Post after Collins’s announcement last year: “As far as I’m concerned, if a guy’s a good teammate and he can help you win, I’d be open to anybody. It wouldn’t bother me whatsoever.”
There are myriad more examples, but while this shows that the opinion of the anonymous GM King spoke with does not represent opinions across the league, it is still no assurance Sam will be drafted. The GM began by defending his and his team’s position on Sam’s playing ability, a more legitimate reason to avoid drafting a prospect, but he wrapped it up by opining that being openly gay in an NFL locker room is still “a factor” in 2014 – but, apparently, won’t be in 2024. Why then and not now? Will the next decade make that big a difference? It has already been forty years since a major team-sport pro athlete came out for the first time – running back David Kopay, in 1975, a few years after retiring from his journeyman NFL career. What’s still causing trepidation?
“The fear of the unknown,” says Ziegler. “People in the media talk about how difficult it’s going to be. Even today, the subtext is it’s gonna be challenging and so hard, and that’s just not going to be the case. People are professionals. But we just keep hearing this reinforced notion that it’s just going to be so difficult to be gay in the NFL, that’s why. It’s just the nonsense chatter that we keep being fed.”
Also coming with this new territory is the question of future endorsement deals. Will companies be more or less inclined to have Sam to sponsor their products and services now that he’s out? Bragman is no agent, but he makes multiple sound points on the topic.
“I find this interesting because Martina Navratilova was my client in the past,” says Bragman, “and Navratilova always told me that because she was lesbian, she got [fewer] endorsements, which is probably true when you look at her caliber of play and her number of endorsements. And now we’re having people saying, ‘Oh, you’re just playing this big so that you can get endorsements.’ If that’s actually the case, society has turned the corner. I think we get the most endorsements if he’s an awesome football player, and his agents think the same thing.”
Besides having NFL success, Sam’s charming personality may lend itself well to being a television pitchman. Bragman says what you see in Sam’s ESPN sit-down is what you get.
“He’s almost like he came out of Central Casting,” says Bragman. “Somebody with his kind of looks, his kind of intelligence, his kind of passion, his kind of comfort with the whole situation.”
Bragman is more than Sam’s mild-mannered publicity man. He hosted Sam in his Los Angeles house the entire weekend before the February 9 announcement. “My husband and I said it was like The Blind Side this weekend, you know?” he says, not really exaggerating.
On Friday night Jason Collins came over for dinner. Saturday night’s guest list was much longer: Former NFL cornerback Wade Davis, current executive director of the You Can Play Project (coming-out date: 2012). Former Major League outfielder Billy Bean (1999). David Kopay (1975). Straight NFL players and LGBT activists Chris Kluwe and Brendon Ayanbadejo.
“I wanted [Sam] to do two things,” Bragman says of the weekend. “I wanted him to understand he wasn’t the first down this path, that others had paved the way, and I wanted him to meet these people and respect them. But I also wanted him to understand that there was a wealth of support for him, that he was not going it alone, that he had a lot of love and compassion there.”
“That dinner we put together Saturday night was friggin’ historic,” he adds. “I don’t know if there’s ever been that many out gay athletes at one event.”
There probably has not. And in addition to organizing and hosting this world-record event, organizing the media rollout to a milestone event in the history of sport (which Mediabistro.com called a “PR masterpiece”), having the savvy and experience to know when not to talk to the media and mentoring a future LGBT icon, it’s Bragman who concisely summarized Sam’s future for him, and the future of our major professional sports.
“I told Michael on Sunday morning, ‘Your life is gonna be divided into two parts. Today is the day where that cleave is going to appear, and after tonight your life will never, ever, ever, ever be the same again.’ ”