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Why Is ESPN Being So Weird About Michael Sam?

The worldwide leader in sports is behind the curve on covering gay athletes

Michael Sam (center).
Stacy Revere/Getty Images
February 11, 2014 11:40 AM ET

SportsCenter's coverage of Michael Sam's coming out was, more or less, a disaster. Some questions were immediately asked: How would this announcement affect Sam's draft stock? Would locker rooms accept a gay player? How does Jerome Bettis feel?

Bettis, our in-studio ex-jock on Sunday night's broadcast, said exactly nothing illuminating. On the other hand, Herm Edwards, the fiery former coach, was actually offensive, saying that Sam is "bringing baggage" into the locker room — and that's when he wasn't mispronouncing the player's name as "Michael Sams." Even anchors like Robert Flores, who are supposed to be the show's steadying hands, seemed to have trouble saying the word "gay." Tortured pauses and jumbled sentences abounded as the men on set reckoned with the notion of homosexuality. If SportsCenter — and ESPN's television network — are the central hub of sports news, their broadcast on Sunday night was quietly depressing.

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In retrospect, why would anyone turn to SportsCenter for insight? You can read a smarter stream of analysis on Twitter or online — including on ESPN.com — and catch highlights on YouTube. Others may be feeling similarly: In 2013, SportsCenter's ratings reportedly were down by somewhere around eight percent. Still, ESPN has the power to drive conversation, especially when it comes to football. They bashed us over the head endlessly with Tim Tebow, a terrible quarterback who they helped shape into an excellent talking point. When Tebow, who appears to have played his last down in the NFL, ceased feeling relevant, the network set its sights on Washington Redskins' QB Robert Griffin III, who, as a black quarterback having a trying season, offered another divisive narrative. This is the network capable of, and willing to, conjure a news cycle out of the fact that one of its own commentators said Colin Kaepernick had — brace yourself — the potential to be great.

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This stuff is worthless, but it's also insidious, polluting sports conversation that strives for more nuance. Now it's Michael Sam's turn to be dissected on television every night, except ESPN won't only be talking about his ability as a football player. This conversation is a much larger and more important one, dealing not just with football but with society's acceptance of gay men and women in general. America is moving forward when it comes to gay civil rights, but slowly. Millions of people will absorb ESPN's coverage, including those directly involved in the sport. Smart, productive discussion of the topic will make Michael Sam's move to the NFL tangibly easier. The opposite — like an ex-coach calling being gay "baggage" — will make it tangibly harder.

This isn't to put the entirety of ESPN as an organization on trial. Plenty of good things will be — and have been — said on the network's time. Dan Le Batard and Bomani Jones, who have an afternoon show on ESPN2, are two of sports' most insightful commenters. ESPN's flagship investigative show Outside the Lines will certainly put together worthwhile coverage. On Monday night, Keith Olbermann did a great interview with gay ex-NFL player Wade Davis. ESPN.com and Grantland both do routinely excellent work.

But it's SportsCenter and other debate-centric shows like First Take that are both most visible and loudest. And these are the programs that will demonstrate if ESPN is ready to handle a story that can't be — and deserves not to be — divided into two sides screaming at each other. Watching SportsCenter's men utter the word "gay" like they were suddenly being allowed to curse on television made it clear that when it comes to homosexuality in sports, ESPN is its own hurdle.

ESPN president John Skipper has said that the network doesn't have a "frat-boy culture," but there's plenty of reason to believe evidence that the contrary is true. The title alone of Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, the recent, rowdy history of the network by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales, suggests (and who would seriously argue otherwise?) that bros rule Bristol. Many of them are ex-athletes who have moved directly from the hallowed locker rooms to what is ostensibly a newsroom. ESPN has allowed a culture of athletics to dilute its culture of news.

Consider that the network will be discussing the NFL's first openly gay player without an openly gay anchor of its own. It does, though, employ a prominent basketball writer who, on air, called being gay "an open rebellion to God." ESPN will now spend months debating whether the NFL is ready to accept an out gay player. It will be both funny and sad if it never occurs to ESPN to turn that lens on itself.

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