The responses were swift, and wholly predictable. On Wednesday, University of Massachusetts shooting guard Derrick Gordon came out as the first openly gay player in National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I men’s basketball, sharing his story with Cy Zeigler of Outsports and Kate Fagan of ESPNw.
After Fagan linked to her article on Twitter, she received replies like these:
“@katefagan3: Derrick Gordon steps forward as first openly gay male athlete in D1 men’s basketball." You've got to be kidding me. Who cares
— WolfPack Fray (@WolfPackFray) April 9, 2014
— Donald Jenkins (@JenkinsDonald) April 9, 2014
— Jerry Shelton (@sheltonj7) April 9, 2014
Why is this a story? Why is this stuff still news? Who cares? Such were the questions after National Basketball Association center Jason Collins came out last year, and again after probable National Football League draftee Michael Sam did the same last February. Viewed charitably, such questions — such sentiments, really — might reflect a genuine desire for a tolerant, accepting society in which the sexual orientation of sports figures is neither note-nor-newsworthy; seen uncharitably, the same questions could amount to the bitter griping of people who would prefer that gay athletes and sports figures remain in the out of sight and out of mind closet, thank you very much.
Whatever the case, the questions themselves deserve an answer. And fortunately, the answer is easy to come by. In fact, it’s right there in Fagan’s story:
… [Gordon] had closely watched the news around NBA veteran Jason Collins and NFL prospect Michael Sam, both of whom are active players and have publicly acknowledged being gay. About a year ago, Gordon befriended former NFL player Wade Davis, who is now the executive director of You Can Play. Davis introduced Gordon to Anthony Nicodemo, the boys’ basketball coach at Saunders High School in Yonkers, N.Y., who came out as gay last year. Both Davis and Nicodemo, along with several others, including Collins, mentored Gordon behind the scenes …
Here’s who cares about sports coming out stories: every closeted athlete living with fear, stress and uncertainty. Who isn’t free to be themselves. Who isn’t free to love and be loved for who they are. Why do these stories matter? Because they offer hope, inspiration and example. Because they show that, yes, it does get better, and no, the world just might not end if your coaches, teammates and family get a clear understanding of who you like to date.
Oh, and these stories matter to those coaches, teammates and family members, too — plus the rest of us — because we also get a chance to know and love people for their authentic selves.
Not to belabor the obvious, but all of this matters. A whole lot.
There’s an old cliche in therapeutic and counseling circles: you’re only as sick as your secrets. Medically speaking, this isn’t always true — you’re as sick as your out-of-whack insulin levels, or your broken arm, or the size of your brain tumor. But when it comes to athletes being closeted, the point is often valid. You know how it stings to be rejected? How it hurts even more to be rejected by people you depend on, people you know and love? How paralyzing and disabling the mere fear of being rejected can be?
Imagine feeling that fear all the time. Imagine having to lie, hide, live something of a double life, always worrying that somebody somewhere is going to smoke you out, expose you, make you vulnerable, open you up to wholesale rejection from everyone and everything you hold dear. Imagine living somewhere between one and 10 on a spectrum of those feelings, with the dial sometimes cranked to 11. That’s what closeted athletes face — a sports world (and world world) that is becoming more accepting, to be sure, but also one that still harbors fear and prejudice, disapproval and disgust, free-floating anxiety about sharing showers and “chemically imbalanced” locker rooms.
Guess what? None of the above is good for one’s mental or emotional health. Last summer, Gordon’s then-boyfriend posted a picture on Instagram of the two of them in front of a gay bar. Gordon liked the photo. Within hours, he told Zeigler, some of his teammates asked him if he was gay:
Gordon denied it repeatedly, but that didn’t stop various members of the team from teasing him about it. The snickers and snide remarks carried on for weeks. Slowly, it consumed him.
“That was probably the lowest point I was ever at. I didn’t want to play basketball anymore. I just wanted to run and hide somewhere. I used to go back to my room and I’d just cry. There were nights when I would cry myself to sleep.
“Nobody should ever feel that way.”
Over time, Gordon found himself increasingly alone — distant with his teammates, estranged from campus social life:
When Gordon eventually confronted his team — again asserting he was straight and demanding they stop harassing him — the teasing slowed. Yet the damage was already done. Throughout the season — all the way into the NCAA tournament last month — some teammates continued to wait until Gordon was done in the locker room before they would venture into the showers. The “gay” label lingered. The treatment built distance between him and the rest of the team. Gordon responded by isolating himself, which in turn was met with more distance from various players.
“Most of the time when you see me on campus, I’m alone. I eat alone a lot. Since the school year started in September I haven’t been to one party. I’m always working out or lifting or in my room. I do the same thing over and over every day. I feel like I can’t be who I am or live my life” …
As Gordon told Fagan, he hid his sexual identity largely because he was afraid his teammates would reject him. That they wouldn’t see him as “the player with the pretty floater and explosive first step, a key contributor for a program that made the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1998.” He came forward, in part, because he realized his secret was creating a divide — and he found the courage to do so, in part, because he saw how Collins and Sam were received by society and their teammates. How Davis and Nicodemo were able to live and thrive:
“It was a rough process, actually, leading up to this” Gordon said. “Those guys just helped me get to where I am right now. If it wasn’t for them, I’d be stuck. For this to be happening right now, me coming out, it’s an indescribable feeling, honestly. I couldn’t be any happier. I feel like I can fly.”
When Davis began talking to Gordon last year, the former NFL player told Zeigler, he found Gordon to be “lost and confused,” “bordering on depression.” No longer. When Gordon told his teammates he was gay, they reportedly responded that they had his back. That he was family. That they loved him. Which was all that Gordon really needed to hear, and the same thing that so many other closeted people still need to hear. From Zeigler’s piece:
“When kids aren’t able to come out, I know why,” [Gordon said]. “It’s a scary thing. That’s one of the reasons I’m doing this. I want to give kids some courage and someone they can look up to. If I can come out and play basketball, then why can’t they do it? I want to be able to help those people.”
When Collins came out last year, I thought about Roger Ebert’s statement that “to make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts.” I also thought about a Harvard study that followed 268 students for 75 years, measuring everything from personality type to IQ to drinking habits to family relationships, all to determine what factors contribute most strongly to human flourishing. Recently, longtime director George Valiant published a summation of the study’s insights. The key takeaway, according to Valiant? “The 75 years and $25 million expended on the Grant Study points … to a straightforward five-word conclusion: happiness is love. Full stop.” If Gordon’s story helps one person come out, move forward, feel like they can fly, love and be loved without fear and secrets, then yeah, I think it’s news. Call it a crime prevention story. And maybe, just maybe, all of us should care, gay or straight, sports fan or not. Full stop.