Athletes work to change the game for LGBTQ
Two weeks ago, 19-year old Conner Mertens came out to his Willamette (Ore.) University football team as bisexual and ... nothing happened.
Media outlets like USA Today, Yahoo! Sports, and OutSports told the young man's story, reporting that he was the first active college football player to admit he was not exclusively heterosexual. A post by Mertens himself was retweeted hundreds of times, and favorited by more than 1,000 users. But, for Mertens, nothing was different. His coach, his teammates, his friends - all of them accepted him. Not a single thing had changed.
The athletic landscape has become much more aware of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning (LGBTQ) community, and increasingly accepting of it. Jason Collins came out as the first active, gay NBA player in April. Seven LGBTQ athletes from five different countries will be competing in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, all of them women. Mertens is the most recent in a line of hundreds of sports personalities to come out, but he's one of the few that did so while competing.
"When athletes like [Mertens] come out, I think it's great," Miami University head hockey coach Enrico Blasi said. "I think it means that society is starting, hopefully, to understand that we're all in this thing at the same time and there really isn't any difference between any of us."
The key word there is starting. According to a recent DiversityInc article, nearly one quarter of LGBTQ athletes at the high school level come out as opposed to less than 5 percent of those in college. Having played hockey for Miami in the early 90s and currently serving his 15th season as head coach of his alma mater, Blasi can attest to the unique challenge the collegiate athletic culture presents for those in the LGBTQ community. Programs are more autonomous from their respective universities than their high school counterparts, and the stakes are higher, Blasi said. According to him, competitiveness is at a premium and the intimacy of the locker room setting serves as an incubator for homophobic feelings.
That is why, for LGBTQ sportspersons across the country, former Miami student Brendan Burke's story continues to echo on the highest echelon of importance.
Brendan was 19 years old when he told his father Brian, an NHL general manager, that he was gay. Brian told him, "Of course, we still love you. This won't change a thing."
One year later, Brendan became the hockey team operations assistant at Miami University. The program is known as "The Brotherhood," and that is not just some gimmicky, media-bestowed calling card. Miami hockey players past, present and future are expected to embody the qualities of commitment, excellence and acceptance that Blasi's teams have come to represent. In the aftermath of the RedHawks' 2009 NCAA Finals run, "Burkie," as the team affectionately called him, came out to the team, a group he considered family. It was not an issue. It did not matter. They loved him for who he was: "A great guy, personable and caring ... a blessing," as Blasi told ESPN's John Buccigross. When Burkie went public in November of 2009, he became a pioneer in the fight against homophobia in sports. It was a battlefield on which Burkie would hardly set foot.
On Feb. 5, 2010, Brendan Burke was killed in an automobile accident that cut short not only his campaign for equality, but a promising life and career in hockey management. His father and older brother, Patrick, were quick to pick up the banner and lead the charge for LGBTQ athletic acceptance. Patrick helped create the You Can Play Project (YCPP) in March 2012, a realization of his brother's dream. YCPP was founded on a simple premise: "If you can play, you can play." After two years in operation, dozens of organizations at the professional, collegiate and amateur levels of dozens of sports have pledged their support.
"The time was right to have this discussion," Brian Kitts, a co-founder of YCPP and a sports marketing professor at Denver University, said. "It's in locker rooms, it's in venues where there are fans. It's in high schools and colleges. People hear about it and it's an easy thing to get behind. It's all about sports. We've always said that if you're a good athlete, that's what you should be judged on, not your religion, your race, your sexual orientation or your gender identity."
Miami University, specifically its hockey program, was quick to get on board. Blasi was named a chairman of YCPP, a position he still holds. Feb. 5 marked the four-year anniversary of Brendan Burke's untimely passing, and Blasi's continued conviction speaks volumes to not only his belief in equal opportunity in athletics, but also his team's.
"I do what I can in promoting the opportunity for anyone to play the game, no matter of race, color or sexual orientation," Blasi said. "To me, we're all in the same boat, we're all human beings. It's not for us to judge or for us to make decisions based on some of those things. I think it's really important that we continue the fight."
No player on the current roster knew Brendan Burke personally, yet the Brotherhood offers an outpouring of support. Sophomore forward Kevin Morris was one of several underclassmen who helped record a video for the YCPP in the fall of 2012, a video still shown during the second intermission at Miami home games. Willingness of straight athletes like Morris - known as "allies" in the LGBTQ community - is said to be a clear indication that support is building, but it's a process that has not reached its full potential.
"A few of us came up with the idea last year," Morris said. "We had heard about the legacy of Brendan Burke, and that's how we got the ball rolling. But really, if you go online and learn about the You Can Play Project, the biggest thing they preach is that it's only a building block. They want people to know this is just the beginning ... They have a vision."
Those building blocks do not just refer to athletes coming out. They refer to the surrounding communities - teammates, coaches, fans and universities - taking a vested interest in changing the culture to help both LGBTQ athletes and those around them understand one another and thrive.
"What you're starting to see, and what Brendan started, is there's way more awareness and I think there's a different level of understanding and care that you didn't see before," Blasi said. "We all come from the same place, we're all going to the same place and we need to do a better job while we're here of accepting and understanding and not judging."
While the hockey program might be the most visible Miami team in terms of LGBTQ support, they do not house an openly-gay athlete - no collegiate or professional hockey team currently does. That distinction lies with the Miami softball team, and to senior Allie Larrabee, who identifies as a lesbian.
"I've been out since freshman year, and it's been great, actually," the first baseman/catcher said. "It's a little bit different with female sports, but my team has been great about using proper language ... and it's honestly never been a big issue on my team, never has been. It's been a very positive experience for me."
Again, the phrase "Never been a big issue." Teammates who had not been exposed to a player of a differing sexual orientation sat down with Larrabee. They learned about and discussed each other's lifestyles, and after that, there were no problems. Gay athletes such as Larrabee and Mertens are just a few of the men and women who have taken the plunge and found out for themselves that the final frontier for equality in sports has made significant advances in ridding the locker room of stigmas from a bygone era. It's allied athletes and coaches like Morris and Blasi, and ladies like the Miami softball players that are making that a reality.
"[LGBTQ] athletes have similar experiences coming out to their teammates," Kitts said. "They fear the worst and they agonize over it, and absolutely nothing happens. And from the perspective of that athlete, that's the best you can hope for."
According to Kitts, athletic programs like Duke and Ohio State have traditionally been the leaders in LGBTQ athletic support, but the last few years have proven that Miami has become a focal point for LGBTQ athletic acceptance.
"[Miami's] absolute acceptance of Brendan [Burke] sets a really high standard for not only LGBTQ athletes, but for the way humanity perceives athletes and friends," Kitts explained. "They looked at Brendan as a friend and as a colleague, and it says something about sports in general and sports at Miami ... it has become a school that is quite a role model."
Larrabee takes that notion one step further, noting that in addition to feeling accepted on her high school and college teams, the general campus consensus is warming, too.
"I've never been ostracized by teammates or classmates or anything," Larrabee said. "Having the hockey team, really the whole campus be forward with the You Can Play Project, and having people attend the LGBTQ Awareness Week events, it's good to feel that acceptance and know that it's just not a problem. If it were a problem, I would think more of it."
As a coach, alumnus and board member of YCPP, Blasi might be the best-situated to gauge Miami's progress on the topic.
"I feel proud of Miami University," Blasi said. "I think our campus as a whole has always been maybe on the cutting edge. Even as a student we always knew that not only were there gay students, there were gay athletes, and we always felt they were a part of us. For Miami as a whole, Miami athletics, I couldn't be more proud to be a part of it and we're going to continue to do our small part to help any way we can."
The world of sports has come a long way in 25 years. A new generation is in locker rooms that are more accepting and eager to understand what was once different and distrusted. Organizations like the You Can Play Project, OutSports and Go! Athletes have provided a support network for the LGBTQ community to learn from one another, share stories and inspire others.
Blasi, Morris, Larrabee and Kitts all said they believe within their lifetimes they will see homophobia in sports completely eradicated.
"At some point in sports, you're going to get momentum where enough people have come out and said 'this is how I live my life, I'm normal,'" Kitts said. "That sort of normalization, I think, is coming much faster than most of us realize. Certainly in our lifetimes, and I actually think that it's probably going to happen within the next decade."
This past week, freshman outfielder Chandler Whitney told his Walla Walla Community College baseball team that he was gay. He had actually been dating Conner Mertens for some time and didn't know how to break it to his teammates. He feared the backlash, knowing full well that some of his teammates might never look at him the same way again. But the reaction to Mertens' coming out was positive, and it eased his mind.
He stood up at practice, told his team he was gay, and... nothing happened. For Whitney, nothing was different. His coaches, his teammates, his friends - all of them accepted him. Not a single thing changed.
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