On February 8, Howard Bragman, one of the top public relations people in the country, was getting ready for a dinner that would change history.
The guest list that night included a smorgasbord of former major league athletes, many of them gay, cherry-picked by Bragman for the occasion: San Francisco 49ers running back Dave Kopay; San Diego Padres outfielder Billy Bean; NFL cornerback Wade Davis; and two straight guys, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo and Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe (who’ve been sacked after coming out in support of gay marriage). Also in attendance were Chuck O’Donnell, Bragman’s husband of six years, and Cyd Zeigler and Jim Buzinski of OutSports.com.
Bragman summoned the group to his house in Los Angeles to help break one of the decade’s most explosive stories. It was a story that would capture the attention of the entire world, including the president and first lady, eventually overshadowing even the Sochi Olympics.
What made this dinner so special was the guest of honor, a young man by the name of Michael Sam.
“I wanted him to meet other gay athleles who have gone through this,” Bragman tells me. “These guys paved the way for people like Michael. I thought it was important for him to meet them.”
Three weeks earlier, Bragman received a call from Sam’s agents, Joe Barkett and Cameron Weiss, asking whether he could help their client, a top NFL draft prospect from the University of Missouri, do something many would have advised against: coming out before the NFL draft.
Bragman had to look Sam up.
“Even after I met Michael, even after I knew what we were dealing with, I don’t think anyone knew how big this story was,” Bragman admits.
While most PR people are busy keeping their gay clients’ sexuality under wraps, Bragman has become the go-to guy for high profile celebs and athletes looking to bust out of the closet.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Bragman says he was a “fat gay Jewish kid… who grew up to be a Martian.” At 6 foot 4 inches, he’s one of the most recognized public relations figures in the country. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1978, he moved to Chicago where he got his big break working for one of the biggest agencies in the world, Burson-Marsteller. He started his first firm, Bragman Nyman Cafarelli, in 1989. Then came Fifteen Minutes, a midsize public relations agency he still owns today. He’s also the resident PR guy for Good Morning America, where his weekly appearances cover anything from Britney Spears to Justin Bieber.
His first big gay case was Dick Sargent, who starred opposite Elizabeth Montgomery as the second Darrin in Bewitched. Sargent’s coming out in 1991 on Entertainment Tonight stunned everyone, including Sargent himself, who thought nobody would care. The story became front page news, earning Bragman the reputation of Hollywood’s new gay whisperer. Since then, Bragman has handled more than a dozen big comings out, including country singer Chely Wright, Family Ties’ Meredith Baxter, Esera Tuaolo, a retired nose tackle for the Atlanta Falcons, and Sheryl Swoopes, a three-time WNBA MVP.
But Sam’s case was in a league of its own. As a prospective mid-round NFL pick, Sam had the distinct honor of ostensibly becoming the first openly-gay player in the league’s history.
Last month, Jason Collins, a 35-year-old NBA veteran, made history when he became the first openly gay athlete to play in any of four major North American pro sports leagues. But Sam was about to shatter another big first, in a notoriously homophobic sport. And unlike Collins, Sam was doing it at the beginning of his career—a whole other ball game.
“It’s certainly one of the two biggest comings out ever,” says Bragman. “This and Ellen. But hers was in a different time. You didn’t have social media back then. I don’t think the president tweeted about it,” he says. “This broke stereotypes. Football is where gladiators compete in America today.”
What made this coming out even more sensitive was the fact that many in the media world were expecting the announcement. Sam had already come out to his teammates in August, and was seen holding hands with his then-boyfriend around campus. Nobody wanted to “out” him, but it wasn’t exactly a big secret either. As Bragman puts it, “Too many people were sniffing around.”
It was becoming clear on that Saturday that the story wasn’t going to hold. “Far too many people knew we trying to break on Monday.” That’s when Bragman decided on what he calls a “sneak attack.” Sam would make his announcement on Sunday, a full 24 hours ahead of schedule.
To help him get ready, Bragman sat the 6 foot 2 inch, 260-pound, SEC defensive player of the year down for a series of mock interviews that covered more than 150 possible questions—a grueling media bootcamp aimed at tackling any unforeseen surprises.
Bragman scheduled only three articles in three different media outlets: The New York Times, ESPN, and Outsports.com. There was no shortage of stations and newspapers interested in the story. But Bragman kept it to a minimum.
“We live in a world where you don’t have to tell your story 28 times,” Bragman says. “If you tell your story once or twice and you tell it well, and handle it right, it’s going to go viral anyway.”
It was a mad dash to get the interviews done. Camera crews occupied several rooms in Bragman’s house. But even though the stakes were high, Sam turned out to be a natural. He was calm, honest, and personable which, according to Bragman, are the most important qualities for anyone looking to come out publicly.
“He’s just a big ol’ teddy bear,” Bragman says. “He’s very lovable.”
Once the story hit the Internet, Bragman’s inbox blew up. The story became the lead in every news program in the country. Nightly News, Good Morning America, and The Daily Show all covered it. Even CBS’ Face The Nation and ABC’s This Week, programs usually dedicated to D.C. politics, allocated entire segments to Sam’s story.
The first lady personally chimed in, tweeting, “You're an inspiration to all of us.” Even the president offered his support, thanking Sam for “leading the way.”
During the Missouri versus Tennessee basketball game days later, Sam received a long standing ovation when his image was shown on the arena Jumbotron.
Sam’s coming out wasn’t without a hitch. Some questioned its timing, suggesting he should have waited until after the May draft before telling the world he was playing for the other team. About a dozen unnamed NFL execs and coaches told Sports Illustrated they believed Sam’s prospects were seriously damaged by the announcement. On the CBS Draft Board, Sam dropped 70 spots, moving from #90 to #160, overnight. (CBS Sports did move Sam back to #110 the following day.)
“We took a little bit of criticism for coming out before the draft,” Bragman says. But he has no regrets. “If we waited until after the draft people would have said, ‘Oh great, now he comes out and the team is stuck with him, not knowing what they got.’”
Even so, most hailed Sam’s coming out as one of the smoothest in sports history. PR Newser, the industry’s top trade site, called Bragman’s rollout a “masterpiece.” Already a regular on Good Morning America, requests for Bragman to appear on TV panels came pouring in. His phone was ringing off the hook.
“I’m a very lucky guy,” Bragman says. “I’m having fun, and I’m proud of what I do. I have a lot of gratitude for everything I have in my life. I take nothing for granted.”
Whether or not Sam’s coming out was indeed a success will become clear come May, when the draft begins. Until then, it’s anyone’s guess.
“It was about as effective as it could have been,” said Chris Kluwe. “This is just the first step. Mike has come out. He let people know, ‘Hey I’m a gay football player.’ But that’s not the end of it. The rest of the story is, will the teams give him a fair shot?”
Either way, Bragman knows he took part in a moment that truly can be called a game-changer.