New York Jets wide receiver Lavernues Coles has done what some might consider the impossible, disclosing that he was sexually molested between the ages of 10 and 13 by the man who would become his stepfather, according to a New York Times story that ran Sunday.
"I haven't talked about it in ... forever, but I know that holding something like that inside has been a burden for so long," Coles said Sunday after the Jets beat the Miami Dolphins, 17-7. "For me to get on this platform that I have, having been in the league and have all the media attention that we have, I think it's something that should be said."
Coles added that it was thinking of today's kids that got him to publicly disclose his past. "If it gets one kid to come out and say, 'Look, this is happening to me,' ... I think it's right."
It takes a very big person to talk about something most of society would consider embarrassing - and the hyper-masculine world of professional sports sees anything that might question their masculinity as the most embarrassing of all.
We hear all the time about the risk that professional athletes take when disclosing personal issues like this, especially ones that involve sex. Endorsement deals, long-term contracts; it's easy for a team or a company to distance itself as much as it can from anyone having to do with a sexual escapade outside of straight consensual sex. McDonald's dropped Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant when he was simply accused of sexually assaulting a woman. Images of Green Bay tight end March Chmura breaking down in a press conference when discussing his alleged involvement in a sexual assault and child enticement case (for which he was acquitted) are memorable visions that will forever be associated with the man and the player. Society doesn't like to forget the sexual stories of our most-revered icons - in sports or otherwise.
Of course, those two examples are very different than a man disclosing something that made him a victim, not an alleged perpetrator.
The reaction of Coles' team after their victory on Sunday was telling. In the macho world of sports, many men might pull away from a teammate who disclosed that he was sexually abused by his stepfather. Instead, Coles' teammates rallied around him.
"I can't imagine how much courage it takes to admit something like that happened," guard Pete Kendall said. "Especially in this profession. It's such a macho culture."
"It takes a man to say that," fullback Jerald Sowell, who had the team's second touchdown on Sunday, said. "I'm a good friend of his and this changes nothing."
Of course, it didn't hurt that Coles opened the scoring for the Jets with a seven-yard touchdown on Sunday. He finished the game on Sunday with five catches for 68 yards.
It's interesting that Coles likened what he did to coming out, when he said, "If it gets one kid to come out...." What Coles has done is nothing short of what it will take for a gay man to come out as gay in the NFL.
So, why would Coles do it? Why would he want to risk being remembered as the NFL player who got molested by his stepfather?
He made it very clear: if even one kid gets the strength to discuss it because he had the strength to discuss it, it's worth it to him.
It's the same argument I've used with athletes and coaches who have been wrestling with whether to come out or not. At some point, all of those millions of dollars that sports professionals can make just don't matter as much as helping one kid who might be thinking about killing himself because he has no role models to look up to, no example of someone he looks up to saying that it's okay, that he understands, and that that kid can talk about it, too.
Coles also said he feels that a burden has been lifted from his shoulders. Carrying a dark secret for so many years (he's now 27) is something that he surely thought about every day, it sometimes creeping into his mind and distracting him during games. Now that the secret is out, he can ease his mind and find even greater focus on the field.
Former NFL player Esera Tuaolo, who came out of the closet in 2002, has talked extensively about the distraction the secret of his sexuality was for many years.
I am so proud of Lavernues Coles for thinking of others - namely those with the same personal experience - in deciding to disclose this secret about his past. As Sowell said, it takes a man to want to share his past with the rest of the world; just as it will take a man to share his boyfriend with the rest of the NFL. Hopefully that person will take heart and courage from Coles' story.