College athletics are rapidly opening to gay athletes, and Catholic schools have played their part in making college sports more welcoming. Two reports out of the University of Notre Dame (UND) reveal just how quickly change is spreading.
Matt Dooley, a senior tennis player at UND, came out as gay in an essay for OutSports earlier this month. He details his struggle, including a suicide attempt sophomore year when “Death was better than accepting — or revealing — that I was gay.” Dooley writes of a Catholic upbringing that was not vocally anti-gay, but made it clear being gay was problematic. Building upon a successful athletic career in Texas, he began attending Notre Dame, of which he writes:
“I arrived on the campus of Notre Dame completely aware of the conservative environment and what to expect. This institution’s religious affiliations and its resulting culture can be easily described as a pressure cooker for someone struggling with his sexual orientation. While I was excited by the prospect of playing and winning tennis matches for the university, I was beginning to tire of the mental burdens that are unavoidably associated with being closeted – burdens that are compounded for an athlete. Unable to entertain the possibility of ever coming out, I pushed forward and paid little attention to my worsening mental state.”
Eventually, Dooley came out to his parents and then teammates who accepted him with love, and finally to himself. You can read his full essay at OutSports, which is well worth a read. The South Bend Tribune reports that the Notre Dame community’s response to Dooley’s coming out has been “overwhelmingly positive.” Dooley is now involved with the campus’ “You Can Play” initiative, which seeks to make athletics a welcoming place regardless of sexual orientation, race, or gender identity.
ESPN reports prominent Notre Dame voices have affirmed Dooley’s coming out, including Alex Coccia, student body president who led the movement for more LGBT rights at Notre Dame, and Ryan Sachire, the tennis coach:
” [Coccia:] ‘(The) question was: “Are you an ally or are you not an ally?” The question now is: “Why wouldn’t you be an ally?”…That seems to be the sentiment among students. The vast majority of students are supportive.’ …
“Coach Ryan Sachire said it has been business as usual with the team.
” ‘The guys have said, “OK, it’s part of Matt, it’s who he is, that’s great. We love him. He’s still a great teammate of ours and we’re going to move forward as a team and not think about it.” ‘ “
In a related story, Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly spoke to the Chicago Tribune after National Football League prospect Michael Sam came out in a move applauded by many, including President Obama, Fr. James Martin, and even Cardinal Timothy Dolan (sort of). Kelly said he would welcome gay players on his team, even given the University’s Catholic identiy of which he said:
” ‘The university still is about embracing diversity…They necessarily don’t agree with homosexuality, but they certainly, in terms of teaching, embrace diversity. … That’s in who we are. I think the university would feel as though they are still embracing diversity and one’s personal rights. That doesn’t necessarily mean we agree with homosexuality.’
” ‘Now as it relates to the head football coach, it’s about supporting. It’s about putting together a locker room that creates an environment for that player to feel comfortable.’ “
The University of Notre Dame is the most prominent Catholic college to openly welcome LGBT athletes so far, but is not the first. Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas wholeheartedly supported Jallen Messersmith, a basketball player, when he was reportedly the first college athlete to come out last year. Yet, work remains before every LGBT athlete at Catholic schools can safely come out and echo Dooley’s words:
“I have also learned to value myself and accept my sexuality as something that’s neither good nor evil, but is just an essential part of who I am. I’ve learned to respect myself and expect it from others. I have learned to trust again and, maybe most importantly, I’ve realized that I am not alone. There are others just like me, combatting the same fear of abandonment and worthlessness every single day…
“I share this story in hopes of sending a single message to other gay athletes like me: No matter the circumstance or situation, you are never alone.”
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry