On May 10th, 2014 at approximately 6:58 PM the sports world changed. If you watched the NFL draft or looked at any social media platform you know exactly what I am talking about. Nearly 3 months prior, Michael Sam echoed the words “I’m Michael Sam: I’m a college graduate. I’m African American, and I’m gay.” Three months later, Michael Sam is bent over, hands on his legs, tears streaming down his face, eyes turning red as he holds the phone close to his ear. That phone call provided the answer many including Sam had been waiting for. In the profession, we often see this moment: The moment when the lives of our students change before our eyes. ESPN and NFL Network redefined the status quo by capturing the most important, historic, tear jerking, life changing moment that in my opinion may ever play on national television. The moment in which Michael Sam was able to finally breathe and let loose all of his emotions that had built up. Moments later, Michael Sam on national television hugged and kissed his boyfriend.
The draft for many, may have been challenging. After all, millions around the country watched at home, and at bars. Too often we think about athletics only about winning and losing. Day in and day out we see the scandals plaster headlines. However, on May 10th we saw something completely out of the ordinary, and for the better. Sports are about sportsmanship, camaraderie, hard work and determination. They’re also about social justice and equal opportunity. The cultural impact of Michael Sam reaches into every corner of society. What is the impact? No child will ever again grow up thinking that being gay in the NFL is “impossible”. These children someday will be a member of your college community. Imagine the possibilities? The discussions you can facilitate? I cannot help but smile. Think about your current students. How have they been impacted by Michael Sam?
Impact on Higher Education:
Michael Sam, Derrick Gordon, and even Brittany Griner have courageously taken steps to be true to who they are…openly gay athletes. While Brittany, former women’s basketball star who played for Baylor, was encouraged by her coach to stay quiet about her sexuality, she now has the strength to be vocal about who she truly is. Many times her coach implied that if Brittany disclosed her sexuality, potentially she would cause a distraction and possibly hurt recruiting. When denying gay athletes to be who they are, they lose a big sense of themselves and have a hard time focusing and being the best they can be. This is evidenced by Brittany being spoken about losing in the 2013 semi-finals of the NCAA Tournament.
Michael Sam has received an outpouring source of support for his coming out. His courage to come out helped UMass guard Derrick Gordon find strength to come out as a Division I, first openly gay male college basketball player. As these college students are gaining their pride not to hide any longer, this opens up the doors for many conversations to begin. First this says to athletics, Athletic Directors, and Student Affairs officials, we (gay athletes) can no longer be ignored. The coming out of both Derrick and Michael in masculine dominated sports, demonstrates that gay athletes are in our classrooms, on the basketball court and the football field. In order for academia to make our colleges and universities a more friendlier environment for LGBT students and athletes, check out the NCAA website. The site includes topics about inclusion, climate-survey, best practices, diversity forums, articles and other resources devoted to not only gay and lesbian athletes, but includes bisexual, transgendered, and questioning student-athletes. Let’s start making our campuses more inclusive and friendlier environments for everyone!
Why Out Athletes are Better Athletes:
As one could imagine coming out can be a physical, mental and emotional process. Athletes often quit playing in part due to their struggle with their LGBT identity. Often many may feel that if an athlete comes out it is more disruptive to the team culture, the opposite is actually true. When an athlete(s) don’t come out there is something important that gets lost, the closeness, the trust, and the motivation to go above and beyond. An athlete cannot perform at their best when they’re not being true to themselves.
Out athletes will perform better, get better grades, and (connected to both of those) their emotional well-being will improve. As Student Affair professionals we must assist these student-athletes with their coming out process. We must become part of the conversation with athletics. Athletic departments must be supportive of their athletes. Perhaps, you are unaware of any out athletes on your campus? Ask yourself: Is there a safe environment to help someone come out? If there aren’t out role models at your school, you should have readily available resources of fellow out athletes so your athletes don’t feel alone. Check out outsports.com or goathletes.org for great coming out stories. Those who are questioning or are closeted will come to you. Are you ready to help?
Being celebrated for their authenticity, out athletes will become better individuals and better teammates. Although we are excited by all the stories in the news raising the visibility of out college athletes, we also hope for a day when these are no longer stories but they are simply a part of the fabric that is adolescence. Choosing who you date will be analogous to choosing your college major or your profession. It will be a part of your identity but it won’t be a stigmatizing part of you. We won’t need to talk about how to support LGBT athletes because it will be known that they will be accepted. They won’t have to live in fear or consider quitting the team.
Rebecca Windover (@bwindover2013) is a first year Masters student at Kent State University in the Higher Education Administration Program and a graduate assistant in Residence Services at Kent State University. Anna Aagenes (@AnnaLinaAagenes) is the Executive Director of Go!Athletes an LGBTQ network dedicated to engaging and educating athletes and allies. Channell Barbour is the Associate Director of Student Life at Indiana University Southeast.