One of the things that impresses me about the Positive Coaching Alliance is their ability to take breaking events in sports news and craft a valuable message that parents and coaches can use to teach youth athletes. I haven’t seen them publish anything about Michael Sam but am sure they will.
I think this weekend’s events, when the openly gay Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals, was history in the making. We know that professional sports desegregated racially with pioneers like Jackie Robinson, but I wasn’t alive to see it. But we were there yesterday when Sam got word that he had a job in the NFL, and through social media and services like YouTube we were able to see him get the news, break into tears, and finally kiss his boyfriend.
It is common knowledge that there are many lesbian athletes in sports. Billie Jean King was among the first pro tennis players. The LPGA has several out golfers. And in our national soccer team, the all-time leading goal scorer, Abby Wambach is open about her orientation, making her announcement shortly after the talented Megan Rapinoe did the same. And their coach Pia Sundhage was openly out as well. It’s different with women athletes.
But with men this process is moving much more slowly. Robbie Rogers broke the ice* in soccer but he did it as he announced his retirement, for fear that no club in England would accept him. Fortunately the LA Galaxy signed him and he’s doing OK there. At the same time, sportswriters point out repeatedly that there were no openly gay players in the “Big Four” of the NFL, baseball, basketball, or hockey. To me that’s what makes yesterday so fascinating.
Women athletes can be gay and remain role models. It’s different for men.
Why is this something I write to you about? Well, statistics indicate that 3 – 10% of adults identify themselves as gay. That means on a full soccer roster of 18 players, it is possible that at least one player is gay, assuming that sports doesn’t have a lower incidence than the general population. In other words, as your kid continues to play it is likely he or she will have a gay teammate. (I have two children and one is gay, and she was an outstanding athlete through high school.) In light of this I think the Michael Sam story gives all a great chance to talk about what it would mean to have a gay teammate, how we could support him / her, and what feelings your child might have about it.
I have coached teams where I found out later that my players were gay and I was pleased to hear they were comfortable sharing the news with me. I have coached a Vikings team where I am pretty certain I had a gay player but they have not come out yet, to my knowledge. But when I coached that team I made it a special point to talk about acceptance, diversity, and the importance of keeping an atmosphere free of harassment. All teams are made up of players with flaws and shortcomings. Boys can be extremely cruel to each other, usually face to face. Girls can be even meaner, and in an indirect fashion that is harder to confront. Regardless as a coach I try to make it clear that when we bully a teammate, we weaken our team and help the opponent. We can only play our best when everyone is welcome and supported. If you want to win, you have to accept your teammates. It couldn’t be any simpler. If you and your family believe in accepting all people regardless of their sexual orientation, I invite you to have a conversation with your child and talk about what happened yesterday in the NFL. You could ask things like:
- How would you feel if you had a gay teammate?
- Would you make them feel welcome, and if so, how?
- What if it were you? What if there was something different about you that you were afraid of not being accepted?
It’s historic. Here’s something I found on Twitter that I believe captures the moment:
* Rogers was the second player in England to announce he was gay but the first, Justin Fashanu, had a much tougher life and died by his own hand at 37.