Conner Mertens comes out to his team and public
A place kicker at Willamette University in Oregon, Mertens came out as bisexual to his team. He now comes out publicly in hopes of inspiring other LGBT athletes to come out and be true to themselves.
On Saturday the Willamette University football team pounded Cal Lutheran, 42-24, on the road. They scored 28 straight points to finish off the Kingsmen.
Six of those points were scored by Willamette place kicker Conner Mertens (who was 6-for-6 on PATs with no field goal attempts). The redshirt freshman came out publicly as bisexual earlier this year and has become a resource for many young athletes struggling with their sexual orientation.
One of the reasons given for more athletes not coming out is the horrible treatment they will (very allegedly) receive at games, particularly away games. Forget about the fact that Jason Collins got loud ovations when he played in NBA games earlier this season after coming out - somehow other out LGBT athletes would be "distracted" by the boos and torments, the "faggot" calls from the stands, and a tidal wave of other mistreatment by fans.
"People saying I would be a distraction are more of a distraction than me," Mertens told me.
This was Mertens' first road game since coming out. Jim Buzinski and I were at the game, just a quick shot from Los Angeles. NGBA's Mark Chambers and UCLA softball coach Kirk Walker were both there wearing their #BETRUE shirts. At one point during a quiet moment at halftime I called out, "We love you Conner!"
There was no booing. There was no heckling. Mertens was treated no differently than any other player on the field. In fact, there was plenty of cheering when he ran onto the field (in part because his team had just scored) - You can see video of him kicking a PAT below.
Mitch Eby, the openly gay defensive end for Chapman University, was also at the game. He told me life on his football team since he came out in March has been "same old, same old." While he hasn't played yet this season due to injury, he knows he'll receive a warm welcome whenever he finally takes the field.
When I tweeted about the warm reception for Mertens, one person dismissed the lack of boos because of where the game was played.
We have been told by the media for so long that athletes like Mertens won't be accepted by sports at every level - fans, coaches, athletes and administrators - that we believe it's still true. We try to rationalize why one athlete might not be rejected despite the overwhelming acceptance we've seen. We ask questions about how hard it is to be a gay athlete, and we talk about the struggles athletes like Mertens and Eby must face.
Yet the reception from these fans in Thousand Oaks, Calif., has been similar for LGBT athletes, coaches and administrators no matter where they've been, from Southern California to Middle Tennessee to the heart of Texas. I don't think Mertens was warmly received because of where the game was played, but because the entire sports world (heck, the entire country) has shifted in its acceptance of LGBT athletes.
One of those fans was a woman in her 50s who had been in the stands watching Mertens the whole game. She tracked him down on the field as the visiting team celebrated their victory.
"Thank you so much for everything you're doing for the community," she told Mertens. "You're making a real difference."