The first of what could be major steps to homosexual acceptance in men's college basketball happened earlier this week when former Villanova player Will Sheridan announced he's gay.
Sheridan's story is important and symbolic but is it a sign we're getting palpably closer to an active player coming out? That remains uncertain. But does the issue of active gay athletes matter to coaches and players?
Like with every major American team sport, college basketball and homosexuality rarely, if ever, overlap. I spoke with coaches about why that is.
They say, above anything else, they want players who can play. Gay or not. But make no mistake, there are still hesitations and curiosities about the inclusion and assimilation of gay athletes.
|Ex-Minnesota coach Dan Monson had one of his former players come out after leaving the team. (Getty Images)|
"I believe myself and most coaches would treat gay athletes just like any other player," Smart said. "I don't know when that time is coming, though."
Dan Monson was the only coach interviewed who could identify with Jay Wright. Like Villanova's coach, one of Monson's former players came out after his career as a Gopher.
"A couple of players on that team [Minnesota, where Monson previously coached] called me and asked if I knew," he said. "I told them I had no idea. I called the player after that and talked to him for a little bit. He was still struggling with all of it at that point. We were all surprised."
Most of the coaches were surprised at the questions asked and the fact they were even being brought up. Monson was the only coach interviewed who has dealt with such an issue; all others said they'd never been a part of a team on any collegiate level that employed a gay coach or had a gay player.
"I have not talked to other coaches about it," Monson said. "I don't think, even when I had a gay player, I don't think I told any other coach about that because it seemed to be a personal matter at that time. If I had a kid with other personal matters in his family -- I don't discuss it with coaches."
There is still, quite clearly, a hesitation to have the conversation, even if that hesitation isn't a cognizant decision.
"Honestly, I'm 38 and this is my 17th year in the business and you're the first person I've ever had this conversation with," Marquette's Buzz Williams said over the phone Thursday morning. "Without sounding non-engaged in the topic, I've really never thought about it. But I don't disagree that at some point it is something I'll have to address. It's never been broached in any sort of way on any sort of level."
Said another coach of having a gay player on his team: "It's almost like looking the other way. Like, I'm not sure if I'll ever have to deal with this. In all honesty, I haven't thought about that. I'm almost like, 'That's not going to happen to me.'"
"I think it is a little bit of an issue. It's just something that doesn't come up," Hofstra's Mo Cassara said. "Maybe it's the culture and the environment we create in college basketball. I don't think people try to prevent that culture, necessarily, though."
Memphis coach Josh Pastner, who has thrown guys out of practice for simple cursing, preaches tolerance and humility on a daily basis. He hasn't had to deal with this issue, and doesn't know if he ever will have to on a team of his, but he does have a positive mindset about the future.
"It hasn't been discussed around or to me," he said. "But I'm a big believer in people, and as a human being it's about how you treat others. I don't worry about skin color, religion, anything of sexual orientation with our players or with people. I look at them like this: Are you a good person?"
Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall coached likely first-round NBA Draft pick Kenneth Faried for four years. Faried's mother is now married to another woman. Tyndall said his team was completely respectful of Faried's situation, yet he admits there's a macho culture among today's players and perhaps that's why coaches at large haven't yet thought about dealing with the scenario of having a gay player.
"It's never crossed my mind and why I think it hasn't is because men are taught to be tough, rugged, have an edge about them, and I as a coach am probably guilty -- if that's the right word -- I preach toughness and being physical and hard-nosed and having an edge about you," Tyndall said. "Maybe young people today would think if you happen to be a homosexual that you can't be those things. You can't be rugged, you can't be tough, which I certainly don't agree with. My humble opinion is, whoever decides to do that [to come out as an active athlete] will be accepted and much less ridiculed."
What's clear: Coaches aren't passing the buck of responsibility on this issue. For them, it's something that's as serious as anything else that comes across their desk. Williams said he's never come remotely close to dealing with this, but he's not scared of it happening.
"I think my responsibility as a coach is to help all of our guys to grow and mature in whatever aspect they want to be successful at. I think it's my responsibility or my accountability to make them grow. That's on me," Williams said.
It's a waiting game, though. A silent battle of chicken no one realizes they're playing. This issue isn't just avoided -- it's completely, unwittingly ignored. Can there be progress without catalyzation from college basketball's leaders? Will not just one or two gay players, but a collective, a bundle of homosexual athletes, be prompted to come out if their coaches aren't ready -- even if willing -- to broach the subject?
Sadly, that might be the vicious cycle which is at the heart of the issue.
"I don't think it's addressed on the men's side at all, and I don't think it is because you haven't had a player come forward," Tyndall said. "But ... now that [Sheridan has] stepped forward, there's a chance that a current active player at some point in time soon will step forward."
St. Joseph's head coach Phil Martelli offered up this reason as to why he and other coaches haven't dealt with this issue, or talked about this issue over beers or in gyms on recruiting trips:
"If I was to wager a guess, I would say it's about basketball. Basketball people talk about basketball," he said. "Because, at the same time, and I'm not trying to deflect it, I could say in all the gyms I've sat in over the course of time, I haven't heard three sentences uttered about politics. Sometimes, to be honest with you, that can be disconcerting. In the basketball circles, people wouldn't be more socially aware."
Sheridan's story made Martelli -- who has dealt with player issues such as unplanned pregnancies, depression and domestic violence -- reflect on how he would handle the situation, should a player ever come to him and tell Martelli he was gay.
"I have wondered recently," said Martelli, "if you have a player come to you and talk to you about his parents' divorce, or a player comes to you and you become aware of domestic issues, or a player with depression, my response would be I would absolutely, positively be comfortable with getting on the phone with people on my campus who I consider to be experts. If counseling's the right word, they could counsel me and this young guy. It's not something I would take on and do it flying by the seat of my pants."
The coaches, to their credit, were all open-minded about supporting gay rights and doing whatever they could to help, should a player of theirs ever come out. There is concern on behalf of those coaches regarding how the other players on their teams would feel and react. One coach was adamant about his disdain with homophobia among his team and many players today. He did not want to speak on the record about it. He was once a player, though, and he said the mindset toward gays is more flippant and dismissive than it was a few decades ago.
"The whole notion of 'pause' and 'no homo' [slang terms used commonly by the younger generation] and people saying things like that -- people are desperate to make sure that what they're saying is not going to be construed in a homosexual way," the coach said. "There was some of that 15 years ago, but I don't think it was nearly as much or as bad as today. It used to be everyone showered after practices and games. But now, guys don't like showering when there's other guys there. It's things like that."
Each coach interviewed said they'd have no problem with having a gay athlete on their team -- if that athlete came to them when they were already an enrolled student. But from there, the most taboo of questions lingers: would a coach recruit a player if said player was openly gay? It's not about the coach or the recruit in question, they said, it's about their team and how other players, future teammates, would react. Would some players have a problem with it?
"Certain players I'm sure would," one coach said. "Not everyone is accepting of one another."
Many coaches agree there is an unfortunate doubt that exists when it comes to this: Can players today accept bringing in an openly gay athlete before they get the chance to know that person?
"I think that's basically a 64,000 question, and until you just asked it, I honestly don't know," Martelli said. "Where are we as a society? Are we more open and willing and able? But I do think that it is not a dilemma, but it would certainly create a great deal of reflection by a coach, because, I think the human side of it would be, in this day and age we can accept our differences and work through it, and at the same time, you'd really have to be certain of the reaction from the other players. You would have to really understand their maturity level, their background, how they've been raised. That would all have to play in your decision-making, because you're making a group decision, you're not making a decision that is going to impact one player, not a decision making an impact on just the guy's roommate."
For all the things coaches believe they can control with their teams, this is something that's clearly akin to walking blindfolded over a sheet of ice. There are no books or manuals to read, no colleagues to call and lean on advice for.
"The truth is, I'd definitely hesitate [recruiting] a gay player," another coach said. "Do I personally have any problem whatsoever with having a gay player? Absolutely not. Would I want to open a can of worms with the rest of our players ... not necessarily."
And even if a coach recruited a gay player and his team was open to it, then there's the issue of other coaches and how they would behave. Many coaches said having a gay player on their team would be used against them on the recruiting trail -- perhaps a true sign of how pious they think their contemporaries are.
"Our business is so cutthroat, the other schools would use that against them. I can guarantee you that," one coach said. "Our game, the culture of our game, is as masculine as it gets in terms of the perception and the outward appearance. People don't want anything to be put in jeopardy when they're trying to get [players]."
From there, a Pandora's Box would inevitably open with myriad other concerns for everyone involved in the recruitment process. For instance, one coach opined on the fact that the issue with recruiting a gay player would eventually become all about that player's sexuality, no matter what other character or ball-playing flaws that kid might have. Every recruit has a list of pros and cons to his name -- it's why schools frequently show interest, then drop a kid two months later. But with a gay player, each time it would be an entirely different batch of headaches, according to some of the coaches interviewed.
"Sure, it will affect a lot of guys," one coach said. "I think it would cause a couple more closed doors. Would I have a problem? No. It's not about me having a problem with it, but if there's 15 kids you're chasing in the 2013 class, well then, yeah, that's going to affect recruiting. It may look like it's targeting gays, but it's not. For instance, if there's a kid that's a complete [expletive], but if you feel like you can connect with the kid, and at the same time you know your kids aren't going to play with him, you're not going to recruit that kid."
Chase a recruit and ditch him? Then you're prejudiced. It's something some coaches don't even want to wrap their minds around yet. Recruits have been ditched because of a bad relationship with a girlfriend or a coach. If a gay player had a temper issue, that's a legitimate concern, but the perception of ditching a homosexual recruit would bring most to one conclusion, some coaches fear.
There is disagreement about this issue, though. Not all coaches interviewed doubted their peers or had a pessimistic outlook on the state of the game, the players' and coaches' ability to embrace homosexuality in college basketball's culture.
"When we recruit players, we always talk about family and those kids being in our family. My wife and I talk about this all the time ... and what if one of our four kids comes and says they're gay," Monson said. "We're not going to love them any less, treat them any differently. There's a lot worse things they could come tell you than that. Them being happy is the No. 1 thing. When kids come into your office, that would be my same response."
"I honestly believe in our young people today," Martelli said. "I think they're better educated than even the coaches were when they were coming up as players."
Some think the game is growing, change will come soon enough and the majority of the college basketball community can handle this with maturity and without scorn.
"Maybe it's because in California it's more progressive and liberal, but I just see that times have changed and society, I think basketball's part of society [in California]. Coaches I know have no problem with it," Monson said.
On a large level, Monson's right. Not one coach turned down the request to talk about this subject, as difficult as it might be for some. Every coach answered every question, even if some wanted anonymity assurance with a few firecracker issues. Most hope this kind of change in college basketball can come by decade's end, maybe even sooner. "I don't have a crystal ball, so I wouldn't be able to say it'll be five years, 10 years, 15 years out," Mack said. "We need a guy to be as confident as Will Sheridan was. I generally got the sense Will Sheridan wasn't worried about his teammates or Villanova basketball. He was comfortable."
"Maybe with a few of these stories that have come out recently, maybe that'll be a stepping stone," Cassara said.
"When it comes, it's probably not going to be one or two players, it's probably going to be a handful," Martelli said. "Are we ready today? I don't know that we're ready today. We might be close, though. And that's because of the way our campuses operate. I think, take it in any field. Twenty years ago, were we ready for an openly gay politician? Forty years ago, 50 years ago, were we ready for [desegregation]?"
Even if players are going to have to be the bravest ones, coaches need to step up and address the issue sooner. The more that do, the more that communicate and openly address the subject, the faster college basketball's timeline of homosexual acceptance and diversity will approach.