Previously published April 15, 2015
Editor's note: The names of the coaches quoted here have been altered to protect their desired anonymity. The true identity of each one of them has been confirmed by Outsports.
Late Saturday night at the Men's Final Four, hours after the national semifinals, I was at Metro, a gay bar in Indianapolis, with gay high school basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo and UMass guard Derrick Gordon. The whiskey was flowing well past 2am, but it was the conversation that kept us all awake.
We were with three other gay men at Metro that night - all of them closeted college basketball coaches. They had tracked us down one way or another - finding us that week in a local haunt or months earlier on Facebook. The three of them represented just a sampling of the closeted men in college basketball we met or talked with those 72 hours in Indianapolis. Some of them are from major Div. 1 programs. Others are at Div. 2 or 3 schools.
All of them are scared.
The backdrop of Indiana was ironic. The sports world - including the NCAA - had just come down hard on the state for enacting a law that legalized discrimination against LGBT people. The head coaches of the Men's Final Four teams released a joint statement criticizing the law. Businesses and politicians railed against it.
"The notion that you can tell businesses somehow that they are free to discriminate against people based on who they are is madness," said Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson of the Indiana law.
Madness. Yet this is exactly what the NCAA and college athletic conferences are allowing to happen to gay coaches in college basketball. While sports entities and corporations were quick to lash out at the state hosting the Final Four, they have been perennially silent about the tacit and overt discrimination being levied against gay people in basketball on a daily basis. As the rest of the nation moves toward inclusion in the workplace, that discrimination in college basketball is taking a heavy toll.
That toll was present in all of the conversations with closeted gay college basketball coaches I had in Indianapolis and since then. Each of them expressed outright pain they felt living a lie in college basketball. Yet they say that lie has been mandated by coaches, administrators and school policies that at best turn a blind eye to homophobia and at worst promote it. With the number of these gay coaches rising, as one of them said, "something's got to give."
* * *
When Michael was first hired as an assistant coach at his Div. 2 school he was presented with a choice: If he wanted the job, he had to sign a ‘lifestyle contract' saying he was against homosexuality. His school is rabidly anti-gay and will fire anyone who is LGBT. The school is deeply committed to its version of Christianity - Even as gay rights are expanding rapidly across the country, this school is becoming more outwardly anti-gay.
Michael was well aware of all of that when he signed the contract and took the job at his school.
Why would a closeted gay coach take a job where he had to sign an anti-gay lifestyle contract? College basketball coaching jobs aren't exactly plentiful. There's stiff competition for each opening from the head coaching spots on down the line. For someone recently out of college with no coaching experience, that first job is essential to his career.
Plus, his head coach knew Michael was gay.
"It was the first question my coach asked me when he interviewed me," Michael said. The coach didn't care as long as Michael kept it quiet. "He needed a black assistant coach. I played at a high level. My knowledge of the game and skills-training were good. I was the one who related to the kids. He needed me."
So Michael dove in. While he developed a bond with many on the team, the outright homophobia from the coaches and players was palpable. Anti-gay comments seeped into everything the team did. Everything. At one particular practice Michael's head coach started in with gay slurs as the team joked around. While the teammates and coaches bonded over the experience, the head coach noticed Michael wasn't laughing, he was pulling away.
The coach called Michael into his office that afternoon and apologized. It was "just a part of my vocabulary," he told Michael, and "I didn't mean anything by it." He stopped using the language after that, but he did nothing to curb the actions of his coaching staff and players. The mean-spirited comments have persisted since as Michael has remained closeted to everyone but his head coach and one other assistant.
Michael's mentor, a lesbian coach also in college basketball, has told Michael that if he wants to stay in the game he needs to keep his mouth shut about it. All told, Michael said he knows about a dozen gay college basketball coaches all living by the same mantra for the same reason: job security.
"If you want to coach, you've got to be smart enough to know that your private life is your private life," Michael said. "If you want to hang out, go to one of the big cities. When you're in the local community, do your work and keep your head down. Keep it away from the team."
Michael is now considering a departure from his school and may leave college coaching all together. He has been involved with college basketball at the highest levels, but the daily grind of hiding his true self from his team is killing him. He knows coming out to them would kill his job. It already killed a yearlong relationship that Michael was in when his boyfriend did not want to be "the other woman" anymore.
"I love coaching, but this is hard," Michael said. "I may just go back into AAU. The college game, there's just too much trouble for a gay coach. I'm just tired.
"I need to pray a lot and have a stiff drink or two."
* * *
Paul is an assistant coach at a Div. 1 program. They got a tournament invitation this year. Like Michael he is deeply closeted, sharing his secret with only a couple friends. Unlike Michael he has not come out to anyone in college basketball other than the gay men he met in Indianapolis.
The night before our excursion to Metro, he had been circling around Nicodemo and me, passing by us several times over the course of an hour before getting the nerve to say hello.
"I want to coach college basketball, particularly at the Div. 1 level," Paul said as he threw back some Miller Light. "But it's at the point where I need to be happy. I have to be able to be who I am and live my life."
While Paul has dated men for 12 years, he has kept his personal life completely removed from the coaching staff. He feels constant pressure from his fellow coaches to BE straight. He receives phone calls from his coaches at all hours of the night asking him to come to bars to meet women they've found for him. While he would love to ask them for the bartender's number instead, comments they make to one another and to the student-athletes have built a powerful fear in him.
His trip with them to the Final Four was no exception. He was getting ready for a night on the town when some of the coaches made terrible comments about gay people and the very gay bars they had no idea Paul was headed to. Mind you, they have no idea Paul is gay. "They would all be totally shocked," Paul said. The topic of conversation that night inexplicably turned to gay bars.
"No straight guy should ever go to a gay bar," one of them said to the group. "Guys just go to gay bars to get fucked." While sexual conquests of straight men are heralded by the group, the coach didn't mean this in a good way.
"The guys who I think would take it well are the same guys making these nasty comments about gay people. Now I start thinking, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe they wouldn't take it well."
One particular assistant makes anti-gay comments and uses gay slurs on a regular basis, even on the bench in the middle of games. Paul said he does it "all the time." He's convinced that if he came out to his coaching staff, that assistant would "disown" him.
"He uses 'faggot' a lot. 'Stop being a faggot and get on the stats sheet.' We tell him you can't say that, but he doesn't stop."
* * *
A little over a year ago Jim, an assistant at a Div. 1 school, was mapping out a plot to kill himself. The homophobia he saw and heard from his coaching staff was consuming him. He was working out four times a day and had dropped his weight to 130 pounds, not a healthy weight for him. Subconsciously he was driving his body to the brink of death.
"I was looking for any way out."
During the 2013/14 season he had decided the way out would be an overdose of pills. On one particular road trip he had huddled himself around his laptop during his alone time - of which he made sure there was plenty - Googling the best drugs to use for an overdose. He was researching how to get his hands on a lethal amount of them.
It was on that road trip that one of the other assistants accidentally saved his life. He was unaware of Jim's internal struggle, but he could tell something was desperately wrong. In his macho, type-A manner he told Jim he had to figure out whatever it was and pull himself together. The team needed him.
"I was at absolute rock bottom. But that talk shook me up a little bit. They knew something was wrong."
What had driven Jim to the rock bottom was a team atmosphere built around years of anti-gay comments by coaches and team members. Far beyond overt heterosexism, his team - as with so many others - were engaged in homophobia so rampant that it drove him to that brink of suicide.
Last April - just after the end of the season - Jim decided he simply couldn't live like that anymore. And he wanted to live.
One by one over the last year he has opened up to select people on the coaching staff and in his athletic department. Some of the men who had made the most homophobic comments and were the most boisterous about their homophobia were the most apologetic for having led to an uneasy environment for Jim. One of them even cried as he apologized for having just tried to set him up with a woman on the women's team staff. Faced with the realities of a gay coach on their staff, the men rejected their own homophobia and embraced Jim.
Still, the homophobic language hasn't gone away. On a road trip this year one of the coaches not "in the know" casually dropped a gay slur as he had many times before. Within moments Jim's phone was buzzing with messages from the other coaches.
"The guys who knew texted me to tell me they're sorry I had to hear that. The ones who know are so careful about it now."
None of them tried to stop the language, but the messages of support and understanding were far beyond anything Jim could have imagined just a year ago.
"Basketball nearly killed me," Jim said. "But my basketball program saved my life."
The separation of personal and professional lives is a powerful dynamic voiced by all five coaches I interviewed for this story. While we hear memes about keeping "your private life private," all of them talk about other coaches pushing their private lives on them. It comes in the form of talking about women or sexual conquests, trying to set each other up with women they know inside or outside of basketball - conversations in which these closeted gay men have no ability to engage.
When teams head out on road trips or have team functions, many of the other coaches bring their girlfriends and wives along with them. There is no real separation of personal and professional lives when you're essentially living with your colleagues for six months out of the year.
"It really hurts not being able to bring the people around whom I want to bring around to my basketball family," Paul said. "I want to bring around my gay family, my friends. But I'm afraid if I do it's going to ruin me."
Jim has been able to bring around some friends. His coaching staff and about half of the players on the team this past year knew he's gay, though Jim keeps most of the details of his personal life private. Even being out, Jim feels the need to keep his friends attending games at arm's length.
"There was one game when I had seven friends sitting across from the team," Jim said. "If people knew how many gays we had in attendance at basketball games here, they would be shocked."
* * *
Tony has thought seriously about coming out publicly for the last year. As a player he was one of the best in the nation, taking his team deep into the NCAA tournament more than once. He dated men as a player, even developing a clandestine long-term relationship while he was a captain of the team. Since entering the coaching world - he's at a Div. 1 program - he has explored friendships in the gay community all the while keeping his coaching fraternity far away from his personal life.
At one point last summer the insularity of the closet had gotten too much for him: Tony had decided he would tell his story publicly. He sat down with his head coach to map out a strategy for sharing his true self with the world.
His head coach gave him pause.
"My boss said, ‘look, some of our assistants are older. You don't want to mess with the dynamic we have. And you never know what they might think about it.'
"That was him not wanting to ruffle any feathers. He didn't want it to become a problem for him."
Some of the assistants on the team are in fact older than Tony, who's been coaching for about a decade. One of them in particular has made sweeping blanket statements about gay people in the past that have made Tony cringe. Yet recently the assistant bemoaned the new anti-LGBT law in Indiana. Even with occasional supportive messages, the unknown is too risky for Tony to put his career on the line.
While he said his head coach is "empathetic" about his situation, since their conversation he has heard the coach use gay slurs and demean gay people while he has been with recruits. It's been like a dagger in Tony's heart every time.
That recruiting piece is a big stumbling block for Tony, who wants to be a head coach of his own team some day. While coaching is important in the college game, talent is paramount. If a team can't draw in top talent, they may be able to use stall tactics to win an occasional tournament game over UCLA, but the team won't win in his conference on a consistent basis.
"When I'm trying to sell my team and my coaching staff to a parent and a child and their coach and their advisor, all it takes is one of those people to have a negative view about it and he'll go somewhere else. Not everyone is going to think that way, but with the power of peer pressure all it takes is one kid on his high school team to say, ‘oh you're going to play for the fag.' That can kill it."
Tony also knows coaches at other schools will use his sexual orientation against him in the recruiting process. Just as his own head coach has engaged in homophobic banter with recruits, other coaches will jump at the chance to brand his team "the gay team" to drive away talent. When it comes to recruiting, college basketball can be a dirty, cutthroat business.
"Nobody is going to hire an openly gay coach, because then it will come up on recruiting trips," Michael said. "Other schools will use it against the team. It's so much to overcome, I don't think people want to deal with it."
That ‘negative recruiting' is something female coaches in women's college basketball know all too well.
Sarah has been coaching in the women's game for over a decade. She's currently the assistant coach at a Div. 1 school that has made recent tournament appearances. Her coaching staff and various members of the athletic department know she's gay. Next year she is going to marry her fiancée - some of them will be invited to the wedding.
Yet she struggles daily with the push and pull of the perceived dangers of coming out publicly and her desire to be authentic. While she's out to some at the school, she's not out to everyone. Based on her interactions with the school's athletic director, she thinks coming out further would erase any chance she has of eventually taking over the program. She says being a woman may already have eliminated her from that potential head-coaching job.
"I watch our athletic director interact with men in our program," Sarah said of her male AD. "There's more eye contact [when he talks to the men] and more depth to the conversations. He spends more time with them."
That very much speaks to the issues facing closeted gay male coaches who feel daily pressure to date women and be straight. If they are unable to relate to the straight machismo culture that permeates men's college basketball programs, if they come out to their coaching staffs - or worse, publicly - they will be on the outside looking in.
"It's the good old boys club," Sarah said. Women and gay men simply aren't invited. The statistics back up the anecdotes. In the last 40 years the number of female college athletes being coached by women has gone from 90% to 43%, according to a study by the University of Minnesota. Male coaches are finding ways to take the places of female coaches.
Tony's head coach has warned him about this very thing. If word gets out that he is gay, it could seriously jeopardize his future in coaching. It should be no surprise that there has never been a single out gay male Div. 1 college basketball coach.
"He told me I shouldn't come out publicly for my professional future. He said wait for another five years for newer attitudes to rise up and the older generation of the athletic directors goes away."
That fear of getting another job was pervasive in all of my conversations with these five coaches. There is a clear assumption - by them and the people in the profession closest to them - that by coming out publicly their chances of advancing in the profession will be dead. Because of the tight-knit nature of the college basketball coaching community, many think coming out to more than a couple close confidants in the sport will cause word to spread. Some like Paul think - and others like Michael know - that coming out to anyone will earn them a pink slip.
While Jim has found open arms amongst the coaches on his team, he believes that by coming out to them he has limited his opportunities for growth beyond his current school.
"A basketball hire is all about who you know," Jim said. "It's not really based off of people's skill set most of the time. It's going to take some head coaches and administrators proactively hiring people who are gay before people start to realize it's OK."
He pointed to former Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey's signing of Jackie Robinson in 1947. Rickey had made a conscious decision to integrate baseball and make a statement about racism in sports. Jim said it will take that kind of conscious, public move by a couple ADs and head coaches in college basketball to make change.
"Until somebody takes the chance and says 'let's get past this,' and makes a hire publicly for this reason, there will still be fear."
* * *
While the NCAA and sundry corporations went on the offensive against an anti-LGBT law in Indiana, they have accepted the current status of college basketball. There are no demands to make the game more inclusive. Whether they would admit it or not, schools, conferences and corporations in college basketball have been happy to wear blinders and chalk all of this up to "boys being boys."
The NCAA National Office has tried to take steps forward. The NCAA Office of Inclusion has developed materials - like their LGBT manual Champions of Respect - to assist colleges in navigating these issues. Yet without the support of the members of the NCAA, and without them creating specific policies, nothing is getting better.
"This is a membership-led organization," said Bernard Franklin, head of the NCAA Office of Inclusion. "The membership adopts the policies and rules and regulations. What we try to do at the national office is to promote and identify best practices that institutions should embrace for diversity and inclusion."
Yet the policies and practices outlined in these materials are clearly not be implemented by the member schools. Currently there is not a single publicly out head or assistant coach in Div. 1 college basketball, men or women. The lone out lesbian - Sherri Murrell - was released by Portland State University earlier this year.
These issues are very real, as outlined by these five coaches. They involve the physical and mental safety of college basketball coaches across the country. The NCAA allows member colleges to force employees into signing contracts that question their very identities. They allow policies that forbid LGBT coaches from marrying the person they love. These coaches are contemplating suicide and leaving the profession all together.
While some may think this is an issue that only affects a small group of schools, these issues reach far more than most people realize. All of the men said they knew other coaches who are closeted and afraid. Michael knows a dozen. Jim knows about 30. Sarah said she knows about 50 other closeted female coaches in college basketball alone. Fifty. And she said that from her personal experiences, she believes somewhere over 50% of female college basketball coaches are gay.
Something has got to give.
"We live in a society where it's OK for Ray Rice to be in a locker room," Michael said, "but Michael Sam is too much of a distraction. And that's just for the players. Imagine what it's like coaching. It's even worse because the field is not that big, there are that many fewer opportunities."
* * *
Last weekend Tony was at a gay wedding. Two male friends of his had decided to get hitched, something not long ago thought to be as impossible as having a gay college basketball coach.
When we talked on the phone, Tony was just leaving the celebration of the marriage of his two friends. It was a nice respite from the grind of college basketball. While the season is over, recruiting never stops. That's always been one of Tony's fortes.
He thinks the day may be coming when he shares his story publicly. He has been thinking about it for the better part of year. Last summer he was going to do it before his head coach suggested he stay in the closet. Yet the pressure of the friction between his personal and professional lives is building.
"I think about coming out every day. I want to do it every single day. I try to get myself prepared to do it every single day. But that fear of breaking those relationships or losing my job or losing recruits, it just kills me.
"When I get to be around the gay community and my friends, and when I'm home with my friends, that feeling is just becoming way more important to me than holding onto this job. I love the game but I need to have an authentic life.
"If I can't come out soon, I'm going to have to leave the sport. I can't do this much longer."