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Are College Sports Finally Ready to Accept Gay Athletes?

By L.K. Regan

Traditionally, competitive sports have been considered a pretty hostile environment for gay athletes. But a recent story of an out gay athlete and his teammates suggests that environment may be changing. College lacrosse player Andrew McIntosh came out to his coach and teammates—and was greeted with support and understanding rather than abuse and avoidance. Does his experience signal an attitude change in collegiate athletics?

McIntosh is a senior at New York's Oneonta State University; at the end of his junior year, he was told that he would be made captain of the lacrosse team for the 2010 season. This should have been a huge joy and an honor—but McIntosh instead considered suicide, as he recounted in an essay published on Outsports. For years, he had been struggling with his sexuality, particularly with relation to his team and his strong feelings for one of his high school teammates. He credits the movie "Milk" with changing his story: "It was the first time I realized that there are other people out there who are closeted and do not want to live. There are people like me. And it was then that I began to wonder: Are there other gay athletes too?"

As McIntosh began to reach out, and take the brave steps of coming out—first to the teammate for whom he had feelings, and then to his sister, who is also gay—he began to discover people in the world of sports who understood the difficulties faced by a gay athlete. First was Andrew Goldstein, a lacrosse player (from Dartmouth University), also gay, who had come out in the media, being profiled not only on Outsports but on ESPN. McIntosh reached out to Goldstein, who was uniquely able to understand the pain of living a double life on a tightly-knit sports team.

But equally important was McIntosh's coach, Dan Mahar, whose attitude gives insight into the role leadership can have in shaping the direction of a team's response to an out player. McIntosh was, he says, "too nervous" to speak to his coach about his sexuality, so he did it by email, writing to Mahar to "let you know that you are the first coach I have ever told this to and I am even telling you before my parents. The reason I feel somewhat comfortable telling you is because I remember one time in practice you called someone out for using the term 'gay' in a derogatory way." This simple human gesture had given McIntosh the courage to speak to his coach. "I hope this does not alter your opinion of me as a captain, a player and more importantly a person," McIntosh's letter concluded.

Coah Mahar was not only understanding, he explained that "if we had a roster of 30 players and 15 of them did not want to play on the team because I was gay, he would tell them to leave the team," McIntosh writes. For his own part, Mahar told the New York Times, which also profiled McIntosh last week, “I know that that was a very difficult and anxious conversation for him. I wanted Andrew to leave the office knowing he was supported, and this did not change anything as far as I was concerned.” Buoyed with confidence from his coach's support, McIntosh next came out to his co-captains, who, he says, "embraced me with open arms." McIntosh by this time had begun dating, and had become comfortable enough with his sexuality to begin joking about it with his teammates.

How to put this in context? In the winter Olympics earlier this year, there were only a couple of out athletes, despite a more visible presence for gay-targeted events and venues. But college sports seem particularly ready to open up to gay athletes, and younger athletes are often more likely to come out, as each generation becomes more accepting of gays. Colleges and universities are also increasingly likely to have diversity training for coaches, and to place gender identity and sexual orientation amongst protected categories—as does the NCAA (National College Athletics Association), which also provides diversity workshops for their member schools, along with education kits.

All of these developments mean that young athletes may find a less hostile environment—and, in fortunate cases, a genuinely accepting one—in comparison to past generations. If Andrew McIntosh's story is any indication, the future for gay college athletes is looking a lot brighter.