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May 13, 2014

How ESPN, Michael Sam and his boyfriend broke new ground

The kiss seen 'round the sports world on ESPN took quite a bit of planning and a whole lot of luck.

Like football fans everywhere, ESPN knew that Michael Sam, the first openly gay pro football prospect, was going to be the story of last week's NFL draft. What it didn't know was whether Sam would even be drafted, given the attention generated by the self-disclosure of his sexual orientation in February and his fading stock among draft watchers.

Nevertheless, ESPN's cameras were in place Saturday when St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher called Sam at his agent's house in San Diego to tell the former University of Missouri defensive lineman that they had selected him in the seventh and last round of the draft.

What the cameras caught next was something remarkable — and certainly rarely seen on Disney-owned ESPN: a tearful Sam receiving congratulations from his boyfriend, Vito Cammisano, complete with a kiss between the two men.

Congratulatory kisses are common in sports, although they usually occur between husbands and wives or boyfriends and girlfriends. This one drew alternating waves of shock, anger and gratitude from around the Twittersphere and elsewhere after ESPN aired it, on a tape-delayed basis, at 6:40 p.m. EST Saturday followed quickly by a replay on the NFL Network.

Some, like GLAAD (the organization formerly known as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination), said it was "a significant milestone," according to Ross Murray, its director of news. "It was touching," Murray said.

But many — including some players — recoiled: "Im not watching @espn until this Michael Sam story dies. It's gross. I'm not tryna watch 2 dudes kiss on a sports show," was one of the milder anti-Sam sentiments on Twitter. Miami Dolphins player Don Jones tweeted, "OMG," though he later deleted it, and another critical comment, and apologized.

The coverage of Sam's big moment took several months of planning by ESPN, which began preparing to follow Sam's progress in the draft shortly after he publicly came out in February. "We talked about it in production meetings for months," said Seth Markman, who oversaw ESPN's draft coverage. "We knew he'd be in the draft, but we didn't know what round. We knew we had to figure out a way to attack it."

Based on its draft projections, ESPN reckoned that Sam would go in the later rounds — if he made it at all. As such, the network decided not to assign a camera crew to him on Thursday or Friday, when teams made their first selections (the network had gained exclusive access to Sam because it is producing a feature on him to go with an award he will receive at the network's ESPY Awards in July).

In any case, it opted to wait until Saturday — the draft's final day — to turn its cameras on him, figuring that Sam, disappointed by not being picked early, might be too discouraged to let a crew trail him to the bitter end. The network also agreed that it wouldn't air any footage if Sam wasn't picked.

After nearly a full day of waiting, Sam got the call from the Rams a little after 6 p.m. He was the 249th player selected out of 256. His family and friends began to celebrate.

And at that moment, ESPN's producers in New York lost the live feed from California, where its crew was with Sam. A thunderstorm near network headquarters in Bristol, Conn., knocked out a relay of the California feed from Bristol to Manhattan.

Fortunately, the ESPN crew in California caught the emotional celebration on tape and fed a recording back to the network's draft-production truck outside Radio City Music Hall in New York. ESPN's producer in California, Maura Mandt, told Markman, "It's great! It's emotional!"

Which is exactly what Markman said he saw when he saw the feed. "Honestly, when it was coming in, we have a very young production crew here, everyone in the [production] truck thought, 'How great is this!' No one was speaking up saying, 'We shouldn't show this.' The reaction was, this is no different than a heterosexual guy kissing his girlfriend. It's emotional, and let's show it. It was only afterward that we realized we showed a man kissing a man. And we thought, 'Well, that's different.' "

Another apparent first: As part of its coverage, the network also featured reaction from a draft party at a gay bar, Gym Sportsbar, in West Hollywood.

After the kiss had aired and the negative Twitter reaction started rolling in, Markman says, the network realized it had touched a nerve.

"It's a shame," he says. "Our job is to document the draft. It's a news event, and we're covering the news. As producers we don't make social and political decisions. I'm glad we're talking about this [the decision to show the kiss] than talking about why we decided to cut out of that shot or not have the shot at all."

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