Justin Peligri: Making the right play when your athletic program makes national headlines

Justin Peligri, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

Kye Allums speaks to a reporter after coming out as the first transgender athlete to play Division 1 basketball in 2010. Hatchet File Photo
Kye Allums speaks to a reporter after coming out as the first transgender athlete to play Division 1 basketball in 2010. Hatchet File Photo

One of college football’s best players told the world he’s gay on Sunday. His coming out elicited praise from star athletes and celebrities around the world, but the reaction in his own locker room was even more telling.

“They supported me from day one,” Michael Sam, a top Missouri defender and NFL prospect, said about his college teammates in an interview. “I wouldn’t have the strength to [come out] today if I didn’t know how much support they’d given me this past semester.”

Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel also offered this to the press: “He’s taught a lot of people here firsthand that it doesn’t matter what your background is, or your personal orientation, we’re all on the same team and we all support each other.”

This statement of seemingly unconditional support from his peers and coaches is noteworthy. If students at GW are looking for examples of school spirit, this is it. Showing support for a gay man in athletics, traditionally considered as a bastion of heteronormativity and sometimes aggressive homophobia – that’s campus pride.

The way Missouri handled the news was admirable: The school was supportive when Sam told players and coaches a year ago, and encouraging when he made the decision to come out on his own terms to the national media this weekend.

But the story wasn’t quite the same at GW in 2010, when history was made after junior Kye Allums became the first ever openly transgender Division I basketball player.

Shortly after coming out, Allums told The Hatchet that he received numerous messages and phone calls of support for his decision to tell his story.

But later, the tale struck a sour chord. According to Allums’ mother, Rolanda Delamartinez, administrators barred Allums from speaking to the press. Even though the University seemed publicly receptive, Delamartinez alleged “that’s not the case behind closed doors.”

And Allums told Sports Illustrated in 2012 that the locker room was thrown into “turmoil” because of the announcement. Former head coach Mike Bozeman said that the University didn’t handle it well either.

“I was winging it,” Bozeman said. “[The University] provided us with a sports psychologist to come and talk to the team, but that was toward the end of the year. We needed that at the beginning.”

There haven’t been any high-profile coming out stories in GW sports since Allums. Fortunately for LGBT athletes, the new athletic director Patrick Nero has refocused the program. In his tenure, Nero has fought to make GW athletics an inclusive environment by getting involved with the “You Can Play” campaign.

On this campus, blocks away from the White House where Barack Obama became the first president to endorse marriage equality, and a short metro ride from the Supreme Court where thousands waved rainbow flags in June after the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, it is easy to forget that battles are still fought, every day, for LGBT equality.

Sam’s coming out makes national news because – even though we might not realize it in our liberal GW bubble – disclosing this type of personal information is still new. It’s still extremely difficult to do, especially when sports are involved.

GW might not have set the best precedent a few years ago, but let’s make sure that when future athletes come out of the closet, that we are as proud of our own as Missouri was of Sam.

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