A common sports cliché is that the start of every season is a new beginning. Usually, this sentiment is just used to foster hope amongst a fan base of a team after a disappointing year. For Chris Burns, the Bryant University men's basketball assistant coach who came out publicly last autumn, this season has truly been a groundbreaking one.
"It's been a special season," Burns said. "I've grown a ton."
The most pressing issue for Burns when he was considering coming out as how it would affect his team's recruiting efforts. Besides developing young men and making sure they succeed in the classroom, the biggest responsibility of a college coach is to go out and convince high school athletes to come to his or her program.
"That's the lifeblood of the business," Burns said.
The recruiting trail usually entails gaining the trust of the player's parents, assuring those parents that the program the coach is representing will benefit their child the most. In a country where 39% of people still oppose same-sex marriage, according to the Pew Research Center, there is a good chance that Burns will encounter a family that does not condone his sexual orientation. Burns did not take that fact lightly as he made his decision to come out.
"Certainly recruiting was the biggest concern," Burns said. "Of all things professional, that was what was holding me back the most. Coming out really puts you out there and at the mercy of people's attitudes and beliefs, and that was certainly my biggest concern."
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One of the other aspects that concerned Burns was the lack of desire for most people to discuss the subject.
"Even if you sit down with parents and kids, they don't acknowledge it or it's not talked about, especially because most people aren't comfortable talking about it. You talk to (recruits) on the phone, you meet them in person, you get to sit down with them, have them come on a visit and they say all of the right things, but behind closed doors, you don't know what anyone is saying. That's something that's a little bit out of your control that you have to make your peace with."
Although he could not know for certain how players and parents would react, Burns knew that his support system was strong and that the other coaches at Bryant were supportive of his decision to come out.
"I have got to give our coaching staff a lot of credit, too, because I kind of put them in a tough spot with this, where this is going to directly affect them as well, and they were comfortable enough with me and believed enough in me to let me go forward with this."
Another factor that comes into play is the upward mobility of coaches at the college level. College coaches move around a lot as they climb the ranks. It is understandable that a coach would be concerned that personal matters might affect a hiring coach's perception.
"Getting hired by somebody else, getting another job, there's certainly a risk for that, putting myself out there for that."
Burns believes that ultimately the number in the victory column will be the determining factor in a coach's decision to hire him, not his sexual orientation.
"When you prove you can do something, when you can recruit and you can coach, people just want to win, so ultimately I think the majority of places moving forward would hire me probably because of my ability to do the job."
The best part for Burns was how his older players, the ones who have been there for his entire tenure, reacted to the news. One player in particular helped reinforce that Burns made the right decision.
A couple of days after Burns came out, the player came to Burns and asked for a ride to the hospital. Burns agreed, no questions asked. The player was quiet during the ride and headed straight for the doctor's office when they arrived. When the player returned to the waiting room, he finally opened up about what was going on, saying something that was particularly special for Burns.
"After it was all over and he found out he wasn't sick he said ‘Look, after what you did the other day, how could you not be the person I came to for this.' That helped me out. It kind of immediately brought myself and the guys a little bit closer together. Trust is everything when you're building a team, and I think it kind of helped build that trust a little bit more with everybody. So that was kind of nice to see."
The season didn't go as well as hoped for the Bryant Bulldogs, posting an 8-23 record. Yet no matter what issues he may face due to his coming out, Burns feels that this season for him, having lived his truth at every game, has been the best one yet, and it that the trajectory for himself and the team is trending up.