Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has coached gay players before during his 20-year career.
Though Freeze declined to name the two players he coached before arriving on Mississippi‘s campus because of privacy, he said there is no exact protocol for how to handle a situation like the one that arose with Michael Sam.
This week, the Missouri All-American defensive end publicly said he was an “openly, proud gay man.”
Among the questions facing athletic directors, coaches and administrators in the wake of Sam’s announcement is how to teach tolerance and acceptance of gay athletes within the athletic department.
“It does cause you to go back and evaluate,” said Troy AD John Hartwell. “One of the first things I did was go back to our senior staff and say, ‘OK, let’s look at our policy. Let’s make sure we don’t have any issues here.'”
Like many of the 10 athletic directors who responded to inquiries by The Associated Press, Hartwell said Troy believes in nurturing diversity and fostering respect for every individual.
“Because at the end of the day, you’re going to have teammates that are of a different race than you are, of a different nationality, of a different economic background, possibly of a different sexual orientation – with a whole variety of beliefs,” Hartwell said.
Still, football locker rooms lend themselves to being ripe with machismo and bravado, places where jabs involving one’s sexual orientation are fairly commonplace – even if meant in a harmless manner.
But the jabs could lead to potential conflicts, as evidenced by the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal. An investigation order by the NFL detailed Dolphins players being the targets of vicious taunts and gay slurs.
Illinois football coach Tim Beckman said if a player did use a gay slur against another teammate he’d first ask the team’s “honor council” – a group of 14 players selected by teammates – to address the situation.
Likely, he said, the player insulting a teammate would be told to correct his behavior and given a second chance. If the players’ group didn’t take what he considered to be appropriate action, Beckman said he’d step in and take steps himself.
“We’d probably give that young man a, ‘Hey, this is what’s being said. If it doesn’t change for the betterment of the family, then you’re going to be suspended,'” Beckman said.
Said SMU athletic director Rick Hart said in the locker room athletes have to think “Are we crossing that line between bonding (with) teammates and having fun, and kind of ribbing each other to the point where things are hurtful and we need to put a stop to that.”
Sam isn’t the first football player to declare he’s gay.
Freeze, who has coached two players he knew were gay, says, “On the teams we’ve coached, we always talk about how you treat others.
“In all cases, there is never a time that making someone feel bad is the way to go about it, regardless of what your view is.,” the Mississippi coach said. “People deserve respect and we preach that daily. Hopefully that is the way we attack every situation.”
Sometimes that’s easier said than done.
Last October, several Ole Miss students, including about 20 football players, were reprimanded for interrupting a school-run play “The Laramie Project” with gay slurs. The play was based on the 1998 murder of the gay college student.
The school said all students at the play had to attend an “educational dialogue session.”
Indiana has taken a proactive approach.
Last month the school held a gay pride night at a women’s basketball game.
“The main thing is to bring it out in the open so that anybody dealing with an issue that needs to be accommodated can bring it forward whether it’s an LGBT issue, an eating disorder, which is pretty common in college athletics, so we can try and create an environment that welcomes them,” Indiana athletic director Fred Glass said.
Not all schools have felt the need to address Sam’s situation.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said he hasn’t discussed the issue with coaches because he doesn’t feel there’s a need.
“Among student-athlete and coaches, their reaction to this has sort of been, ‘Why are people treating this like a big deal?'” he said.
He said Notre Dame doesn’t have a protocol in place for such issues.
Swarbrick said there is counseling available to students struggling with their sexual identity, but emphasized that “our expectation and our message is whatever differences you encounter in people, it’s not going to be an issue. You’re going to be respectful. You are going to be tolerant. You are not going to carry prejudice of any kind.”
But others are reacting.
Kansas State athletic director John Currie said his university does have a protocol in place to deal with such issues. He also said they discussed Sam’s announcement in their regularly scheduled staff meeting earlier this week.
Kansas State’s academic services and counselors are trained through the SafeZone program, which is designed “to increase the awareness, knowledge and skills for individuals while addressing the challenges that exist when one wants to advocate for their LGBTQ peers, family members, friends and co-workers.”
TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said what Sam did was brave and will create change.
He compared the announcement to how Bear Bryant’s Alabama squad playing USC helped lead to desegregation, and what Billie Jean King‘s Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs did for the Title IX push.
Del Conte added it also shows ADs need to be prepared if athletes come to them ready to announce they’re gay.
“In today’s society, it’s more of a media (thing) – are you prepared for the media?” Del Conte said. “And if you’re not, let’s give you the tools necessary to help you.”
Then he pulled out the most recent Sports Illustrated with a picture of Sam on the cover.
Del Conte said, “You’d have to be prepared for that.”
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