Q&A: In Columbia, Sam's story was 'really poorly kept secret'
FEB 11, 2014 11:35a ET
Questions about what he was doing when the story broke, questions about what it meant for Missouri athletics, questions about how Columbia, Mo., was reacting.
It quickly became clear two Michael Sam stories were at play – the one Columbia briefly acknowledged before shrugging and moving on and the one that halted the national news cycle beginning Sunday evening, when Sam gave interviews to The New York Times and ESPN to make his sexual orientation public.
Bowers, a journalism professor at Missouri and the sports editor of the Columbia Missourian, wrote a column Monday morning detailing how most people around town knew of Sam’s story by last summer, if not earlier.
Sunday night was “when the storm broke,” Bowers wrote, but the locals saw the clouds gathering months ago.
At this point, with countless hours devoted to analyzing Sam’s decision and his NFL future, there’s little else to say on the periphery of Sam’s news.
Instead, I’d like to turn it over to Bowers who, in a Q&A with FOXSports.com, offered some insight into what locals knew last summer, how the Missourian nearly broke Sam’s story last August and, most importantly, how such a chasm could exist between the way Columbia and the rest of America consumed it.
How did you first hear about Michael Sam and this story?
I had a reporter, Erik [Hall], who was very interested in Vladimir Putin and the statements he was making about gays in the Sochi Olympics. He came to me with that story idea last August and said he wanted to localize that, although that’s all he had at the time, so it didn’t intrigue me a lot. I said if we’re going to localize it, let’s talk to some gay athlete around here.
So he went out looking for some and finally came back with the name Michael Sam, and I thought, ‘OK, there’s a big deal.’ That is something we can localize and something people would be interested in. Even then I knew if Michael Sam was going to talk about being gay, that was a huge story.
He called him and said, ‘Can we do an interview with you about your sexuality?’ and Michael Sam said, ‘Yes.’ It kind of blew me away – I didn’t expect that. I was stunned that Sam was amiable towards an interview.
When did you start to hear this story around Columbia?
August was when I learned about it. There were others who might have it different than that. But as the story went on and the season started, the media opportunities are not plentiful. And obviously when you’re in a press conference you can’t ask these kinds of questions.
So it just sort of went on like that. And for the Missourian and other media sources, you can’t pull the trigger on this story without Michael Sam -- I mean, it’s his story. He either wants to tell it or he doesn’t.
Were people actually talking about this out loud around Columbia, or was it just something that was known?
I think it was something that was known. On the Internet, you could see it. People just knew it. They just didn’t talk a lot about it. I heard from a lot of journalists in other parts of the county who knew about it.
It was a big story, but you couldn’t go and get it unless it comes to you. We did what we could, which was ask him if he wants to talk. That’s really all we did. As we were setting up the interview [last August] and jumping through the hoops, it kind of fell apart. We texted back and forth with him three or four times during the season, and each time one thing or another led to it not happening.
After the first time he agreed to do it and then backed out, what did he say to you guys?
He just said he wasn’t ready. There was one time where we actually had a time – it was like 7 p.m. on a Friday. I came home to eat dinner and fully expected to turn around and go back in and read the story.
He changed his mind probably an hour or hour-and-a-half before the interview. At one point he said we were trying to out him, and I assured him that was not the case. It certainly wasn’t the case, because we didn’t. So I got the feeling he wanted to make the announcement for some time but was struggling with it. He was also focusing on football then.
When was the last time you talked to him?
That was [last] Friday, when we heard ESPN was doing a story. At that point I was just looking for an interview. We called him again and this time talked to his publicist, who said we could have an interview with him [Monday]. I think the ESPN story originally was [set to break] at 2 p.m. CT. So they said they’d have Michael Sam call us at 2 p.m., and that was the agreement until this all broke, and then Sam did call us [Sunday] night.
How did the story evolve around town as he began to have a great season and Missouri had a great season?
I truthfully never discussed this story with a lot of people. Erik and I would talk about it. Some of my friends would talk about it. There was no evolving, though. It was basically if Sam wants to talk, we’ll talk to him. And if he doesn’t want to talk, then we’re really kind of stuck. There’s nowhere to go. I did not want to out him. That was not my interest – I don’t want to do that. So that put us in a spot.
Now, the one thing he did not do is tell us to go away. Like a good journalist, if no one tells you to go away, you don’t go away. But I didn’t hear it talked about at bars and stuff – there were a few chat rooms where it was talked about and guys were saying, ‘Did you hear about this?’
It sort of dragged on through the season, and then Missouri had a really surprisingly good season, and Michael Sam became one of the faces of the team. He was much more of a star than I anticipated. But we didn’t have confirmation from Sam, so we didn’t go with it. And I think there were a lot of people in Columbia who knew the story was true – not just us.
I think that’s largely why the reaction in Columbia isn’t [big]. There are a lot of journalists in town who are amazed at the lack of reaction, and I think that’s just because in Columbia this was a really poorly kept secret.
If so many people in Columbia knew, how come it didn’t leak out?
I don’t know. I think largely people think this is none of their business. It only becomes a story because he’s the first one. But a lot of people just turn their backs on this kind of thing, and that’s a good thing.
Columbia is a college town, it’s kind of a liberal town and I think [locals] aren’t that interested. Some of the feedback I got [Monday] was, ‘OK he’s gay – so what?’ Some of them understand the significance of the announcement, but a lot of them aren’t going to get too excited about this. If he wants to talk about it, OK then we’ll talk about it. But if he doesn’t, then we’ll let it go.
So that’s the attitude the town has and that’s the attitude we had. We would have liked to do the story, but obviously you can’t force the story out there. I knew when this announcement was made it would be a big deal, and it certainly has been, but we saw it coming.
I did an interview with a radio guy and he asked me if this is the kind of moment where people will remember what they were doing when it happened, and I said for me and a lot of people in Columbia, this isn’t a “moment” thing. The “moment” when I learned Michael Sam is gay was not Sunday, so it really won’t affect me like that.
There seems to be a local story here, where it’s not a big deal, and a national story, where it’s a very big deal. How do you describe that gap between the two?
This is just me guessing, but this is just one town and it probably doesn’t reflect any large swath of America in any kind of way. The other thing is he’s Columbia’s guy. They just view it differently.
Nationally, I’m not sure how it’s playing. I’m sure some people think he’s a hero and some are probably criticizing him. Here in Columbia, I haven’t heard a lot of criticism just yet. And why didn’t the story break? There are a lot of journalists who could have broken that story, but he didn’t agree to talk. Therefore if you’re an ethical journalist, it wasn’t available to you.
So all of this was just bubbling under the surface, but nobody could go with it because Sam didn’t give the official interview.
I felt I couldn’t, and a lot of people around here felt they couldn’t. And the Missourian isn’t unique among newspapers – we didn’t do anything admirable here. We just did what was right.
But I don’t know – there’s some media that doesn’t wait for that kind of thing.
What did you hope to bring Columbia readers by publishing this column now, this behind-the-scenes story of a story you almost had that fell through?
Well, the Columbia Missourian is a publication at the Missouri School of Journalism, where we are teaching students about journalism. So one of the things we try to do is be as transparent as possible and say here’s what’s going on. Some people thought I was being haughty, some people thought we were saying, ‘Oh, look, we knew this, we’re cooler than you’ and that sort of thing. But that’s not at all what I was trying to do.
I didn’t write the column to blow our horn or say we’re all ethical. I just wanted to tell our readers -- and you’re talking about a town where our readers might have known he was gay as well and might have said, ‘Why did this go along as long as it did?’ -- that here’s why we didn’t publish the story. Here’s why we did what we did. I’m not asking that people respect us or not respect us -- I’m just saying here’s what happened.
I don’t think there’s a lot of national media here. I don’t know if we had more of a magnifying glass if this would have been let go as long as it was let go. It was Sam’s story to tell, and if he wanted to tell it, we would listen to him. But if he didn’t want to tell it, there’s nowhere we could go with that. Now the story can be told.
There’s some feedback, but I hear a lot of collective yawns. It doesn’t seem to be an issue here in town. He basically said, ‘Here I am, here’s who I am, now let’s go.’ I gotta respect that.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Teddy Mitrosilis writes and edits college football for FOXSports.com. Follow him on Twitter and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.