A conversation with Outsports’ Cyd Zeigler on Michael Sam’s decision to come out
Former Missouri star and current NFL draft prospect Michael Sam has dominated the news cycle since he announced that he is gay on Sunday night. His announcement was three weeks in the making and involved a lot of moving parts, including PR, agents and individuals from ESPN and The New York Times.
Also present was Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports.com. In 2012, Zeigler wrote in the Huffington Post, “the sports world is changing on this issue, and it’s changing fast.” Publicist Howard Bragman, who has been hired by athletes like John Amaechi, Sheryl Swoopes and Esera Tuaolo among others, contacted Zeigler in late January. Zeigler was “in the middle of strategy conversations,” and he wrote an exclusive behind-the-scenes story of how Sam came out on Sunday.
SI.com had a conversation with Zeigler about Sam’s announcement and more.
SI: When did you first hear about Sam’s decision to come out? Where did things go from there?
Cyd Zeigler: I got a couple calls from Howard [Bragman], and I couldn’t take the calls. It’s odd that he called me twice in a row. He just doesn’t do that. I get the text message from him. (From Zeigler’s story, the text read: “The eagle has landed.”) He and I have worked together for many years and we’ve helped one another take athletes out of the closet in different roles. Sometimes he’s advising me; sometimes I’m advising him; sometimes it’s a collaboration. It just depends. We’ve talked for years about being able to take professional athletes out of the closet. He got the opportunity and called me as soon as he heard about it. We started talking about what the plan would be so he could present the plan to the agents. We came up with what I felt was a great piece, great elements of when to do it and how to do it. It just kind of snowballed from there. It was about three weeks from start to finish, which is pretty fast.
SI: In your behind-the-scenes article, you detail the entire process that led to Sam’s announcement. Although the timetable was expedited (from after the NFL Combine to just after the Super Bowl), it seems like everything went very smoothly.
CZ: The only thing, the one little hiccup, was that we wanted to do it Monday afternoon. But Saturday night we had gotten too many emails, too many phone calls, too many tweets from people who clearly knew what was going on and when it was happening. I remember telling the agents Saturday night, “This cannot wait. We have to convince Howard not to let it wait.” I woke up the next morning, talked to Howard and he was already on it, talking to ESPN and The New York Times about moving it. Then it got moved. The story came out three hours after ESPN talked to Michael. It was a very, very fast turnaround.
SI: How did the timeline leading up to Sam’s announcement compare with the timeline of other openly gay athletes, such as John Amaechi or Jason Collins?
CZ: Well, Jason’s I don’t know. Jason decided to go with a difference publicist, but it sounds like his [timeline] was about six weeks time. John Amaechi got in contact with me in mid-December , and he came out in early February, so that was about six to eight weeks. This was three weeks. This was fast. It was fast because so many people knew. People knew about John, but Jason kept it so quiet. He could’ve waited another six months and nobody would’ve found out. Michael’s team knew. Media in and around Missouri knew. National media knew. It was like a game of telephone. You tell one person, they tell another, they tell another, they tell another and pretty soon everybody knows.
SI: Many media outlets seem to be in a constant race to be the first to report something. It was fascinating to me how Sam made this moment his own even though so many people knew. A few years ago, would journalists have let a player come out on his own terms?
CZ: For the most part. It just depends on how much people know. What happened Saturday night is it became clear to us people knew what was happening, how it was happening and, very specifically, when it was happening. When a reporter has that much detail, they have a news story. “Michael Sam is gay” — that’s outing somebody. If you know somebody is coming out, you know how they’re coming out and when they’re coming out, you have a news story that can be perceived as not necessarily outing someone. It’s a delicate ethical balance. If somebody had run with it, the attention and page views they would have gotten would’ve been astronomical. It was too much temptation we felt for people who knew, and we had to jump the gun.
SI: What have you thought of the national reaction to this story? What about the media coverage?
CZ: The attention has been predictable. I said pretty soon after I knew, and I’m sort of learning more, that this was going to be the biggest sports story of the year, for a couple reasons. The media isn’t just ESPN, The New York Times and Sports Illustrated. A big clump of the media is local blogs and local newspapers and local radio stations. Because [Sam] isn’t on a team yet, this affects every single team because he could end up being drafted on any of the teams. The radio interviews I’ve done have been anywhere from Baltimore to Wisconsin to Houston, all over the map because it could affect anybody. The response has been overwhelming and overwhelmingly positive. The few negative things really have been whispers in the course of acceptance.
SI: How do you think announcements like this will be handled moving forward? How long will it be before an athlete coming out isn’t a major national story?
CZ: I think that for it to not the biggest news story of the day, we’re many, many years from that. We’ve had maybe a dozen WNBA players come out, and Brittney Griner coming out is still a huge national story. Not as huge as it was for Sheryl Swoopes, but it’s still very big.
SI: As far as acceptance goes, are women’s sports ahead of men’s sports? By a significant margin?
CZ: I don’t think women’s sports are that much ahead of the curve in acceptance. I think there are still issues there. And men’s sports are further along than we give them credit for. As far as people being out, I don’t know. I think men’s sports are catching up. More and more women are coming out at the elite level, but you have Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers and now Michael with the men. I don’t know when men will catch up, but they are starting to catch up. Whereas before last year, every year they lost more and more ground.
SI: Do you see Sam’s announcement serving as a catalyst for more athletes to feel comfortable coming out?
CZ: Everybody who comes out lays another brick in the path for somebody else. This will certainly help. It will help a lot more — instead of it being one brick in the path, it’ll be 100 — if Michael is drafted at a high position, if he makes an NFL roster, if he gets some playing time, if he produces, if he wins any kind of awards in the NFL. All of that will help a lot. Him just coming out, it’s almost not enough. He hasn’t started his NFL career yet. We don’t know what the impact is going to be. What if he gets drafted in the fifth round and gets injured or plays poorly and never plays this season? That could happen.
SI: That happens to a lot of later draft picks in general.
CZ: There are some even higher draft picks who don’t make a team. My guess is, if a team drafts him, they know they’re committing to him. They cannot draft him and then cut him. That would be a PR nightmare.