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‘Out to Win’ tackles business of athletes coming out like Michael Sam


Toronto filmmaker Malcolm Ingram thinks Michael Sam would have had a better chance to play in the NFL if he hadn’t come out as gay ahead of the 2014 draft.

“It opened up Pandora’s box for him,” Ingram said.

Not because of Sam’s sexuality, Ingram said, but because of the “circus” that followed him as a result of his announcement. That circus included a host of endorsement offers including one with Visa and plans for a reality TV show on Oprah’s network that raised eyebrows (and eventually postponed).

Ingram followed that circus as the director behind Out to Win, a documentary screening at Hot Docs this week. He had been asked to make films about athletes before but as someone who wasn’t very interested in sports, he never felt the pull. Until he saw Sam come out in February 2014. A week later, he had pulled together the budget to start filming.

One challenge Ingram had to work around was that he knew that Sam wasn’t likely to contribute his voice to the documentary. Sam’s story was still unfolding as Ingram was shooting. In researching the history of tolerance of diverse sexuality in sport, the scope of the film widened.

“I realized there was a much bigger story here,” Ingram said.

His starting point was David Kopay, the NFL player largely credited as the first professional athlete to come out as gay in 1975, after he retired three years earlier. Kopay was a running back who played nine years with five teams.

“I was horrified that I didn’t know who David Kopay was,” Ingram said.

But it may not be surprising since Kopay was shunned from the limelight, never welcome back to the NFL as a coach. Coming out had a cost. Tennis champion Martina Navratilova learned this six years later when she came out as bisexual and said she lost millions in endorsement deals.

For MLB outfielder Billy Bean there was a high personal cost. He was so afraid of being outed, on the day of his partner’s funeral, he showed up to play a game instead. Bean came out in 1999 after he retired and was made the league’s official Ambassador for Inclusion last year.

Before any of that, he left baseball suddenly in 1995, the same year his partner died.

“He walked away from his career because he couldn’t be honest about himself,” said Ingram.

Ingram thought Sam started out with the right attitude of focusing on the game but eventually, the allure of the business opportunities got the better of him.

“Within a year, he went from this great hope to Dancing with the Stars,” Ingram said.

But Ingram thinks his intentions were good, that Sam didn’t come out just for fame or money that followed. For him, it’s just part of the evolution of acceptance of LGBT athletes.

“There is an element of selling out your sexuality and marketing yourself but at the same level it says something about how far we’ve come in the world,” Ingram said.

Sam was signed by the Dallas Cowboys but released in October. He still has dreams to play in the NFL, even though some believe he’s too small to play defensive end and too slow to play outside linebacker.

The Montreal Alouettes hope to sign him for the CFL this season, because they believe he’s a good fit for the Canadian game.

TORONTO STAR | SPORTS

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