Personal Brand Splash: Michael Sam

Welcome to the first of an occasional series on unforgettable people—from quiet introverts to flamboyant newsmakers—making a splash with their personal brand.

What will they have in common? Courage, authenticity and packing a few lessons the rest of us can well afford to learn.

The man of the moment is clearly Michael Sam.

Creating headlines with a few simple words: “I am an openly, proud gay man”, coupled with  “I want to be a football player in the NFL.”

Welcome to controversy, American-style.

It’s worth listening to his original interview with ESPN to hear—hype-free—what this new role model has to say.

While we can argue why this is even an issue in 2014, what makes his story so compelling in personal brand terms is what his decision to be true to his own values means to his life.

He is the top defensive player in the best college football conference. That means that without this announcement, pundits speculate he would have been picked up in the third round in the upcoming NFL Draft. Those same folks seem to think he’ll now go in the fifth round or perhaps not be drafted at all.

What does that mean? Think millions in potential future earnings: salary, sign-on bonuses, endorsement deals. All so he could go into his first job not being required to live a lie.

(That certainly puts worrying about a business move that might ruffle some feathers in perspective.)

It’s also worth noting that even if his decision winds up with a neutral financial impact, he still will be working in professional football—a business that has a dismal track record for embracing anything other than hard-boiled, down-and-dirty “manliness”. He hasn’t chosen an easy road, just the right one for him.

There is also something to be said for putting things in perspective.

As he told Chris Connelly: “I endured so much in my past: seeing my older brother killed from a gunshot wound, not knowing that my oldest sister died when she was a baby and I never got the chance to meet her. My second oldest brother went missing in 1998, and me and my little sister were the last ones to see him…my other two brothers have been in and out of jail since 8th grade, currently both in jail.  Telling the world I’m gay is nothing compared to that.”


Having an unforgettable personal brand is about being real. It’s about perspective (which does not often come easily, especially when you’re 24). And it’s about courageous choices.

Channeling a little of Michael Sam’s courage would be a very good thing.

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  • I applaud Michael Sam for his openness and honesty. You are right when you say this should not be an issue in 2014. But we are talking about the NFL whose track record for humanity and fairness is not among the best by any stretch of the imagination. Point in view: the Miami Dolphins fiasco of the past season with bullying and coaches saying they knew nothing about it. I wish him the best and hope he gets to play for a team & coaches in the Pros like the one he played for in college who saw to it that this was not an issue.

  • When the brand essentially is the person, authenticity rules even more; folks expect even more “truth” from an individual; we expect to wade through hyperbole and more with the more faceless entity. People like genuine and the aspirational.

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