When an Athlete Comes Out

January 29, 2015

Willamette University Head Football Coach Glen Fowles has always had an open-door policy with his players, so it didn't surprise him when freshman kicker Conner Mertens requested to talk privately on Jan. 20. However, while most student-athletes Fowles meets with want to discuss classes or financial aid, Mertens used the time to inform his coach that he is bisexual.

"Conner came in, we made small talk, and then he said, 'Here's the deal: I like dudes,'" says Fowles. "He was planning on coming out publicly and wanted to make sure his sexual orientation wouldn't affect his future on the team."

While Fowles's first move was to assure Mertens the news would not change his standing in the program, he wasn't sure what to do next. He knew that Mertens going public--making him the first active out athlete in college football history--would garner a lot of attention.

Fortunately, he received a call from Wade Davis, Executive Director of the You Can Play Project and a gay former NFL player, whom Mertens had previously reached out to. Davis's first piece of advice was to listen intently.

"I told Coach Fowles that when coming out, a LGBT athlete wants to be heard, so don't question them or ask if they are sure about their sexuality," Davis says. "Then allow them to take the reins on how they would like to proceed. When coaches let the athlete decide who they want to tell and how, it gives them a sense of power and control over the situation, which can build their confidence and sense of safety."

Mertens chose to use a letter to come out to his Willamette teammates. It was presented to the squad's leadership council, whose members responded positively. From there, Fowles called a team meeting and the rest of the squad read Mertens's letter. Mertens chose not to attend to give his teammates a chance to react honestly to the news, but Davis was invited to help the student-athletes process what they'd heard.

Overall, the reaction was one of acceptance. "Some of the players said they didn't agree with Conner's sexual orientation, but they supported him because he is a good person, a quality teammate, and had earned their trust," says Fowles. "No matter how guys felt about the issue, everyone made the decision to stand behind Conner."

Still, Davis worked with Fowles to create a safe space where individuals who had reservations about having a bisexual teammate could share their feelings without judgment. "I told Coach Fowles that if a player came to him and ex-pressed discomfort with Conner's bisexuality, he needed to take that individual's feelings seriously," says Davis. "The best approach is not to tell the player that what he believes is wrong or shameful, but instead, get him to look past Conner's sexual orientation and refocus the conversation on Conner as a teammate and human being."

Another concern was how to handle the outside world's response. In the days after Mertens came out to his squad and announced his bisexuality on Twitter, he was profiled in Outsports.com, Sports Illustrated, and other media. More publicity came to Willamette after former University of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out as gay a few weeks later.

"If a reporter puts a microphone in front of an athlete who has yet to fully think about what it means to have a LGBT teammate, he or she could say something that's deemed as ignorant or homophobic," says Davis. "Coach Fowles avoided this by designating certain team leaders to talk to the media. This way, every player on the squad wasn't worrying about saying the wrong thing."

Davis also helped Willamette come up with a plan for next fall's games. "I suggested that Coach Fowles let the officials and opposing coaches know during pregame warm-ups that his team has a bisexual player on it, so homophobic language on the field will not be tolerated," Davis says. "Athletic directors can be proactive by making statements about fan behavioral expectations over the loudspeaker."

Overall, Davis thinks Mertens's coming out at Willamette went well, which he credits to the welcoming environment Fowles had already established within the team. "LGBT athletes want coaches who do not put up with homophobia," Davis says. "If a coach hears a player using a gay slur, even as a joke, they shouldn't let it slide. And they should not let conversations about LGBT issues die after one or two discussions. Inclusiveness and respect aren't built overnight."
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