Recently, some prominent athletes like German soccer captain Philipp Lahm and cyclist Graeme Obree have discouraged gay athletes from coming out for safety and morale reasons. But this week, the Associate Head Coach of the University of Michigan’s men’s rowing team offers a thoughtful reply on the importance of being out and authentic as an athlete. Charley Sullivan speaks from his own experience as an out coach and the environment he is able to cultivate for his athletes:
I firmly believe that athletes can only perform at their best when they are able to be themselves. Putting on acts – of pretending to be someone you’re not, of always being brave and never afraid, of not being devastated when your grandfather dies – simply takes too much energy. And acts have a reliable way of cracking under pressure. Teams that take the “military” approach to building team unity – the we-will-dress-alike-in-practice and we-will-all-have-the-same-basic-haircut and we-will-all-believe-in-the-same-God approach – are often basing their hopes for success on a set of external appearances that may or may not actually reflect what’s going on inside the team. The ties that a team needs when the going gets tough must be built of “realer” stuff than everyone having the same slogan on a T-shirt. It’s got to be about things like the desire for the group to succeed as a group, about mutual trust built through daily striving, and about a feeling of truly belonging to the team, no matter what.
Sullivan also calls on university athletic directors to end their “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality on having coaches that are gay or lesbian. He encourages those coaches who are gay to use their identities as a strength, not a weakness, concluding:
And for me, I’m here, I’m queer and I’m a hell of a good coach for it. To other coaches, come on out and play, the weather can be just fine if you make it so and choose the right places to invest your energies. And you just may find yourself being a better and more fulfilled coach than you’ve ever imagined.
This seems to be a much more affirmative approach. Sullivan seeks to help the world of athletics grow to be more inclusive rather than force his athletes (and himself) to hide in a closet conforming to a chilly, unwelcoming culture.