High-profile, openly gay male coach would be transformative
Flip through the pages of any major college or pro sports media guide, and you'll find that nearly every coach's biography ends the same way. Buried below the exhaustive recap of every step of the coach's career you'll find what's known in business school as an attempt at humanizing the brand: photographs of the coach with his wife and children, their arms locked and Trident smiles gleaming. A family photo, a quick glimpse inside a Rockwellian home life -- it all cultivates a connection between the fan and the brand while less overtly reinforcing an image of a different sort: Coach is straight.
Since 1970, 10 professional players who have played Major League Baseball or in the NFL, NBA or NHL have publicly identified themselves as gay, including NBA center Jason Collins, who came out in this week's Sports Illustrated. That's a pittance compared to the number of gay people in this country, which most experts estimate to be between 3 percent and 5 percent of the population. But it's a groundswell compared to the number of openly gay coaches. Not one head coach from professional baseball, basketball, football, hockey or any collegiate revenue sport has come out of the closet. Several LGBT sports groups are unable to name a gay head coach of a high school boys' team in the four major sports.
The notion that blowing a whistle and holding a dry-erase board on the sidelines equals heterosexuality is so entrenched that in December 2010 The New York Times ran a story chronicling that rare breed -- the bachelor college football coach. One anecdote: Shortly after leaving the University of Miami to coach the Cowboys in 1992, Jimmy Johnson, fresh off a divorce, inadvertently reinforced the idea that a wedding band is a job requirement when he said, "There are a lot of social functions to deal with in being a college coach. ... It was good I was married then."
Will an openly gay male athlete on a basketball court or football field make a difference in the search for real equality? Of course. But an openly gay coach could be even more transformative. Coaches not only determine the lineup but they also dictate the direction of a program or franchise.
There's already one major example of how leadership can create an atmosphere that's conducive to a change in culture: the U.S. military. Before the 2011 repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, the policy barring openly gay service members, Marine Commandant General James Amos insisted that homosexual soldiers could undermine "unit cohesion" and be a "distraction." President Obama repealed the law anyway.
"If you look back at that fight, one of the key turning points was when Mike Mullen, who was then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, went to [Congress] and testified that the Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal was the right thing to do," said Zeke Stokes, communications director for OutServe-SLDN, a legal organization serving LGBT military members and their families. "That trickled down through the ranks and set the tone for not only getting the repeal through but also a whole new landscape of fairness and equity in the military. That kind of leadership will be incredibly important from coaches, owners and team leaders in professional sports."
A high-profile gay male coach would also upend our stereotypes of leadership. Coaching is intertwined with attributes long associated with masculinity and heterosexuality: aggressiveness, authority and competitiveness. A gay college football coach, say, might make us rethink what manhood really means. Gender roles off the field have changed dramatically over the last 40 years: There are more women in the workplace, and many men play a larger role in what once were considered female domains at home. But our fields, courts and courses have lagged behind the tectonic shifts in our gender identities.
Sports, by their nature, are binary. Home and visitor. In bounds and out. Winner and loser. Gender roles and sexual orientation in sports are treated just as distinctly. Which leads us to Portland State University in Oregon, where women's basketball coach Sherri Murrell, the only openly lesbian coach in Division I, has heard time and again, "But you're pretty" from disbelieving fans and recruits who associated a woman wearing a skirt and makeup with attraction to men. Murrell, who came out in 2009, didn't do so to make a statement or push a political agenda. It wasn't even intentional: One day her media relations specialist, Ryan Borde, looked up from his work preparing the media guide and asked, "Would you like a family photo?" Murrell, a new mother to twins with her partner, agreed.
This wasn't about Murrell humanizing her brand, but telling the truth and being true to herself. Perhaps one day her male coaching colleagues will do the same. Bravery, after all, isn't male or female, gay or straight. And the smiles in the Murrell family photo couldn't be brighter.