Michael Sam and How he Reminds us That the NFL Is Better at Story Than the People Who Are Supposedly all About Story

Even if you don’t watch football, there’s a good chance you saw the video of Michael Sam, who is now the first openly gay man to be drafted by a pro football team.

This powerful episode was just one of the story lines that ran through the NFL Draft last week, and it reminded me how good that organization is at creating and facilitating  “Story” with a capital “S.”

I’m talking to you, theater industry. You know I love you, so I’d love for you to think about this.

The NFL, which stands for the National Football League, does a great job at creating an intriguing narrative about every little thing that happens. For those unfamiliar, the NFL has a season of 16 games, plus several weeks of playoffs that lead to the Super Bowl. These of course are the main parts of the ‘story’ of a season, but there’s more.

They take what would typically be thought of as behind-the-scenes, insider-oriented stuff and turn it into a show that fascinates.

For example, they have a thing called the Combine. This is basically a bunch of college players who are trying out for the NFL doing some fairly dull workouts, but you’ll notice that every detail of what happened at the Combine back in February is available on the site I linked above. Oh, Russell Bodine of the University of North Carolina did the most repetitions on the bench press, you say? What about in 2008? Who had the most then?

Yes, of course, Vernon Gholston, the Ohio State kid, and Jake Long, from U. Michigan. I kinda remember that.

But it’s not just on a website. People watch it live. They watch people work out. They watch them do the 3 cone drill.

But that’s nothing compared to what happened last week and weekend. The NFL Draft is a live, three day television event, where people (lots of them) watch teams select from among college prospects. It goes round by round, with each team announcing its pick in order, and it goes on for days. It’s not only popular on TV, but people pack Radio City Music Hall to be there for it too.

During Draft Week, sports coverage talks more about picking players for football than it does about actual playing in other sports that are having their playoffs.

Why? Because the NFL does an amazing job with story. They build and tell stories around players and potential players; they help develop and create mythologies around the different teams and rivalries, and they design all the little pieces — like the Draft and the Combine — to be watched and discussed. This is not an accident.

They create a fiber of information and narrative that keeps fans connected between games and seasons. It’s never not football season.

Because of story.

And when it includes stories like Michael Sam’s incredible one, it makes what happens on the field much more powerful.

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