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ESPN's Report on Michael Sam's Shower Habits Was Delinquent Journalism

How he's accepted is a legitimate story, but the network is fumbling it

James Squire/Getty Images

ESPN got into a lot of trouble yesterday for running a segment on Michael Sam, the rookie linebacker who is the NFL’s first openly gay player. The focus of the segment was how Sam’s teammates on the St. Louis Rams reacting to him. About halfway through the segment, correspondent Josina Anderson turned to the subject of Sam’s showering habits. Here’s how she explained it:

Another Rams defensive player told me that ‘Sam is respecting our space’ and that, from his perspective, he seems to think that Michael Sam is kind of waiting to take a shower, as not to make his teammates feel uncomfortable.

Anderson went on to note that two other Rams players, both willing to identify themselves, brushed off the questions entirely. One said he wasn't “tracking” his showering habits and noted that there were all sorts of reasons why Sam might come to the showers relatively late—putting in extra time on the bike, doing more cardio work, and so on. 

Social media lit up with protests

The reaction was harsh enough that ESPN issued a statement defending the story: "In response to recent questions about Michael Sam fitting in with the team, multiple Rams brought up the shower topic and we relayed that information as part of our reporting.” An ESPN later elaborated on this in an email to Talking Points Memo:

We did not sensationalize the reporting. It was the last part of a news segment -- not the headline or lead item in the report. … The player who answered our reporter’s question directly brought it up on his own – she asked how Michael Sam is fitting in," the source said. "She did not ask a shower question. … Michael Sam wasn’t made available today for comment, so we didn’t have something directly from him on this.

Does ESPN have a point? On the one hand, the networks’ own print vehicle, ESPN The Magazine, carried a feature on showering in pro sports—and concluded that it really wasn’t going to be an issue. “His teammates’ reaction to showering with the first openly gay man in NFL history can best be summed up as one collective yawn,” writer David Fleming explained. “ ‘Look, guys shower together,’ says Rams linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar. ‘And Sam’s been showering with guys forever.’ ” And it certainly sounds like this anonymous player who spoke with Anderson represents a minority view within the locker room. If so, a quick, off-hand mention near the end of the story would have sufficed, instead of dwelling on the issue as if it were some big controversy.

Still, that kind of measured coverage would have been fine and I hope nobody thinks ESPN, or any other network, should ignore questions of how Sam’s teammates are treating him. Pro sports is not always a bastion of open-mindedness, after all. The NFL and many players have gone out of their way to do and say all the right things, and that is to their great credit. But there are undoubtedly a few players who feel otherwise. As somebody who is positively ecstatic about Sam joining the NFL, I absolutely want to know about any teammates who feel otherwise. It’s part of the story. 

The analogy here, I suppose, is to Jackie Robinson joining the Brooklyn Dodgers. Robinson was subject to all kinds of abuses, but it didn’t get a lot of coverage at the time, except from African-American reporters. Jonathan Eig, author of an acclaimed book on Robinson's first season, told me about what happened yesterday:

The press didn’t know or didn’t pay attention to his mistreatment by teammates. It didn’t seem to dawn on reporters that there might be any drama until Ben Chapman and the Phillies came to town and started yelling from the dugout. Or maybe it dawned on the reporters before that but they chose not to report it. Either way, it was lousy journalism. There was a great story to be had and only the black journalists were telling it.

There’s no reason to think Sam has, or will, face a similar reaction. The world is a much better place today, or so I'd like to think. But reminding people that not everybody will accept Sam serves many important purposes—not least among them, encouraging the majority of his teammates, who have no problem with Sam or his sexual orientation, to speak out about it. Here’s what Chris Long, the former first round pick who anchors the Rams’ defensive line, tweeted after the ESPN story:

Statements like that, from NFL players, will ultimately have way more impact than the occasional, fleeting story on SportsCenter.

Update: ESPN is now backing away from the story.