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Southern Christian college bullies another gay athlete into silence

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One athlete's story highlights the dangers some Christian schools pose as they threaten LGBT athletes and fire gay coaches. Yet these schools are allowed to remain in the NCAA and NAIA. That must change immediately.

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Today we were supposed to run the story of an incredible gay athlete at a fundamentalist Christian college in the South. When he contacted me a week ago he couldn't wait to share his story because, as he said to me in an email last weekend, LGBT people "need more voices, and I believe that my story can help others find their voice and also save lives."

Every time I talked with him over the last week there was a pep in his voice, a joy in his instant messages. He carries himself on social media with incredible dignity and courage. He even calls me "sir." He had found so much acceptance among his fellow students at the school that the initial fear of their reaction - of anyone's reaction - to his coming out faded. He was ready to share his joy with the world.

"I'm excited for the outcome," he messaged me on Facebook Monday morning.

On Monday afternoon, 36 hours before the story was to run, I got a very different phone call from the athlete. He was crying. He was apologetic. He was shaken. The reality that his devoutly Christian school might pull his scholarship or kick him out of school had gotten to him and his family. He had been looking forward to today for the last two weeks, but suddenly he had to request we not run his story or mention his name for fear of retaliation from his school.

"I don't know what the school will do," he said, his voice quivering. All of the joy was gone. "I have no control over how the school will react.

"I've been in dark places before, and this just jolted me back to that dark place."

That dark place features the darkest thoughts you could imagine. He has been there before. Growing up Southern Baptist he was force-fed an unhealthy diet of messages that reinforced his internal conversations about being a second-class citizen, inhuman, incapable of being loved. Some of those themes were already there as a black man in a society that incarcerates people of color at an obscene rate. As a gay black Christian teen he had struggled to overcome years of destructive messages from his church, the media and even his family. He had triumphed over them only to now be thrust back into the closet by his school.

The most heartbreaking element of his story? This athlete chose his university because it is a Christian school. During his senior year in high school - where he excelled in sports at a statewide level - he had come to fully accept who he was and find support from his teammates. His image of Christianity had begun to shift away from intolerance to that of love.

"I was looking for a family-oriented school and team that I could call my own. At my school, I would be able to earn my degree and draw nearer to God at the same time."

That dream has now turned into a nightmare. It wasn't until a week before he moved to school that he realized the school had anti-gay policies. According to his school, "nearer to God" means rejecting gay people and creating an atmosphere in which he's afraid to disclose his identity. This school has a strict policy against homosexuality and has fired gay faculty members and coaches. He hears anti-gay messages from invited speakers and other people associated with the community all the time.

"I just want to run away from it."

A kind of indentured servant, he now must wear the name of his anti-gay school on his jersey to earn the scholarship his family so desperately needs to get him a college education.

This story comes on the heels of my lengthy feature last week in which I talked to five gay college basketball coaches - in Divisions I & II - all of whom feel they have to stay in the closet for their own futures in the NCAA. One of those coaches had to sign an anti-gay "lifestyle contract" to stay at his school, just as faculty and coaches have to do at this athlete's university and many others like it.

These are just the latest desperate cries for help from a system that is crushing LGBT athletes and coaches in religious institutions. In 2010 Belmont University fired successful women's soccer coach Lisa Howe when she told administrators that she was having a child with her partner. That move had a chilling effect on coaches that can be felt today.

The administrations and trustees of these Christian schools are nothing more than schoolyard bullies. They wield their power over far weaker athletes and coaches, pummeling them into submission with messages and policies that dehumanize them and fall into their own narrow views of religion. They claim to live for Jesus Christ yet hide behind the cross and words in the Bible never uttered by their Savior. Never. When the people in their schoolyard won't comply, they punch them in the face and banish them to society's curb.

These policies and actions by Christian schools are nothing new. They are a trend - a trend that we must now focus on changing. Eliminating. It is time to give these schools a choice: Discontinue your practice of forcing employees and students to sign any anti-LGBT lifestyle contract or have your membership in the NCAA or NAIA revoked.

While the NCAA, along with many corporations and non-profit organizations, rallied against an open door to discrimination in Indiana, they have all chosen - every single one of them - to be blind to what is happening at many Christian colleges across the country. ESPN, CBS and various other TV networks happily broadcast games of schools like Baylor and BYU that explicitly forbid homosexuality.

The NCAA knows this is happening at colleges and universities, and its members do nothing about it. Nothing. There is plenty of talk and support at events like the NCAA's Inclusion Forum this weekend in San Diego. The NCAA Office of Inclusion at the national office creates documents like Champions of Respect to help schools better understand LGBT athletes. These are positive steps.

Yet those events and manuals aren't helping the athletes and coaches who need help the most, at schools that reject these efforts. I've been to the Inclusion Forum, where several closeted LGBT people in athletic departments spoke to me about the lack of support and outward hostility they receive in the very athletic departments that sent them to the Inclusion Forum.

The NCAA members' failure to properly address the public mental health crisis being perpetrated by these "Christian" schools (I hesitate lumping them in with true Christians) is a dereliction of duty and makes the NCAA and its members complicit in the discrimination.

What needs to happen? It's pretty simple: Athletic directors and conference commissioners need to draft a policy that will forbid any member of the NCAA from discriminating against LGBT community members in any way. LGBT athletes and coaches cannot be asked to sign anti-gay lifestyle contracts and cannot lose any scholarships or jobs based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or any expression of either of those identities. Those athletic directors need to bring this to the NCAA Convention next January in San Antonio for a vote by the membership.

Sounds over the top? Seems melodramatic? It's not. This is how change happens. This is how we prevent teen suicides. The power brokers pulling the purse strings can get this done. A year from now the NCAA and NAIA could be void of any school that bars members of a particular class from attendance or employment. Given the cache and money brought in by those associations, more schools will change their policies than be left out in the cold the way they have abandoned LGBT athletes and coaches.

Today I will be reaching out to the athletic director of my alma mater - Bernard Muir at Stanford (home of the Directors Cup, by the way) - and asking him to lead this effort. Religion is a beautiful aspect of the Stanford community - one of the great symbols of the school is Memorial Church. Yet these destructive policies of many Christian schools that target members of a specific community cannot be part of the NCAA or NAIA.

Some will say this isn't the answer, that we need to work more with these schools, talk with them more, share more glossy manuals with them. I'm all for working with people who want to find solutions, like Azusa Pacific athletic director Gary Pine. He is a thoughtful devout Christian who wants to embrace LGBT athletes and seeks to find a way for everyone to fully express themselves (despite his school firing a trans professor a couple years ago). He is reachable, he wants to engage in dialogue where both sides understand the other a bit more. For some schools, partnership is the way to go. Those schools will remove these self-harm-inducing policies and focus on inclusion to remain in the NCAA or NAIA.

Yet there is an entire collection of colleges and universities that simply must go. They will not remove their destructive anti-LGBT policies. Their version of Christianity is exclusive, not inclusive. They can no longer receive the benefits of membership in the NCAA or NAIA. Their commitment to discrimination now outweighs their commitment to excellence.

I don't know what will happen to this athlete, or the thousands of other athletes at schools like Baylor and BYU that are allowed to perpetuate policies that drive fear in LGBT athletes.

But I know this: This athlete is watching. And so are others. Coaches, athletes, administrators. Closeted people at Christian schools from South Carolina to California are watching to see if they really have the support of organizations, corporations and individuals who claim to make inclusion paramount.

I also know this: If I ever again hear of an NCAA or NAIA school that codifies discrimination based on sexual orientation, the fear of the LGBT student-athletes and coaches at that school will be on the heads of every member of the NCAA that didn't do something about it.

It is time for these schools to go.