Ask Matt Dooley, a senior on the Notre Dame tennis team, why he came out and the answer isn’t about him. It’s about the process; about the future.
“It’s complicated,” Dooley tells me. “People say it shouldn’t be an issue and [coming out] shouldn’t have to happen. I see what they’re saying, but to me it does matter. Until society really truly views us as equals, it’s going to be an issue and that’s why coming out is still a thing.”
Pick a date on the calendar when the gay rights movement swept into the sporting world like a determined basketball player on a fast break and it would be this: April 29, 2013.
A year ago today, then-unknown NBA player Jason Collins became an international superstar when he came out in a first-person essay on the cover of Sports Illustrated, turning the journeyman into a media phenomenon. But more importantly, he became a role model for millions of youngsters and—perhaps even a bigger deal—for the next generation of professional athletes.
In February, Missouri college football standout Michael Sam revealed he was gay and this month, UMass basketball star Derrick Gordon did the same, saying after that he was the “happiest” he had ever been in his life after sharing a long-kept secret.
Collins became the first gay man in a major professional team sport to be out, Gordon the first Division I men’s basketball player to be out, and next Thursday, at the NFL draft, Sam will become the first-ever active NFL player to be openly gay. (Should he be drafted—which is likely.)
But as these athletes make such revelations, critics (and some supporters) say the hubbub is overblown. Who cares? We get it. There are gays in every walk of life; let’s move on. Why should we need to know the sexuality of these sports stars?
“The thing that really stuck with me in what Jason said was that coming out was one of the most important things he could do as an athlete.”
The why is as simple as this: Because they’re different. And, in the society we live in, different people will always face an uphill battle. The more of them who share their story, the easier it is for the next and the next and the next. In the end, differences make us all the same. Don’t they?
Cue the Collins effect.
“The thing that really stuck with me in what Jason said was that coming out was one of the most important things he could do as an athlete,” explains Dooley, who wraps up his tennis career for the Irish in the next two weeks. “And that really went a long way. It pushed me. His coming out spurred conversations in my own life.”
They’re the conversations that have terrified young kids for much of the last generation in gay culture: I know this is who I am and I know that I want to acknowledge that. But how do I share something so scary with those who I love? It’s enough to petrify a youngster.
It petrified me as a young gay kid in Montana, growing up playing tennis. There were no out men’s tennis players (there still aren’t), no players to truly identify with or emulate. It was a deterrent, but it was a motivator too. After coming out in my senior year, oftentimes my tennis felt uninhibited: I was swinging for the fences and it was still going in. Perhaps it was because I was living my entire life more freely.
“I can help people with this,” says a confident Dooley, bound for medical school in Houston this fall. “My vendetta through this is the fact that a lot of young people who aren’t out are battling depression on one level or another, even if it’s not diagnosed. Coming out at Notre Dame, I felt like there wasn’t a safety net for people like me, so I wanted to provide something in that dark space.”
It hasn’t just been Collins leading the charge. Robbie Rogers, an American then playing professional soccer in Britain, came out in February of 2013 after revealing to his family that he was gay. He now plays for the L.A. Galaxy, near where he grew up.
Then there are the names like Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Sheryl Swoopes, Brian Boitano and others. Coming out has been a choice athletes have had to make on a personal level for years. But publicly, once they make that decision, the trickle down effect is immeasurable.
“The most important thing is guys like Matt Dooley,” says Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of OutSports.com. “Just in the last year I’ve spoken with athletes all over the country who have thought about suicide. These kids are suffering, partly because of the views that still exist in sports. I understand that people in the media in their posh offices might be tired of these stories, but they continue to be important to the sporting community.”
For Dooley, the text messages and Facebook messages and emails have come in droves. Yes, there have been some negatives, but the personal reach of his decision has “been the most rewarding part,” he says.
The biggest of rewards goes back to the gay community—and beyond. Players should keep coming out because every story is different. It only gets better if they keep sharing, keep breaking down barriers and walls. Sure, they’re just athletes, but don’t we all love sports because they transcend into our culture?
“When I look back at everything that has happened in the past year, it’s kind of crazy to think that we’ve had multiple people come out and do things that would have been unprecedented in history prior,” reflects Dooley. “And that’s all in one year. Putting a topic out there for public discussion—that’s what ultimately helps. You have to personally go there before you can help other people. And partly, that’s what Jason did for me.”
“Different people connect with different stories. People of different races and religions and sports will connect with what they’re familiar with,” he says. “The civil rights movement ended some 40 years ago, but we just had a NBA owner tell his girlfriend not to bring black people to his games. Discrimination and bigotry on every level continue to exist. It’s important for all of us to talk about these issues and tell these stories. I believe the end of homophobia as a power in sports is nearing its end, but that does not mean it’s over.”