Columbia—Kyle Hawkins had just spent another 20 minutes or so being interviewed on his cell phone, talking once more about the issues that have made him an unintentional trailblazer.
Over the past year, the former Missouri men’s club lacrosse coach has grown accustomed to the interviews and his position as one of the rare insights this country has to an openly gay male coach in men’s sports. To think, last summer he didn’t see the news value in his situation.
A little more than a year after he announced his sexuality in message-board posts on outsports.com, Hawkins’ example has given rise to new questions about the relationship between openly gay male coaches and men’s sports. One day, could an openly gay male coach succeed in leading a team of predominantly straight men on a prominent stage? And if so, what would that look like?
For various reasons, the experiment didn’t work for Hawkins. He had coached the MU club lacrosse team for nine years. This spring, on May 4, team members and officials decided not to extend his contract for the 2007-08 season. They cited eight issues, including unhappiness with Hawkins’ practice regimen and reputation outside the school, as reason for his termination. He completed his tenure May 31. Previously, the team renewed his contract annually.
He finished with a 127-58 record, highlighted by a Great Rivers Lacrosse Conference championship in 2004.
Team officials have repeatedly denied that Hawkins’ firing had anything to do with his sexual orientation. Hawkins won’t speak to that claim but points to his record as coach.
Regardless, the story has become a discussion about his sexuality.
His story was featured by The Associated Press, and ESPN visited MU twice, preparing a television report.
Hawkins’ example as an openly gay male coach stands out as a rarity in a men’s sports environment that many consider one of the last bastions of machismo in America.
There have been instances of retired male players coming out, most recently with the announcement of John Amaechi, who spent five seasons as an NBA center with the Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers and Utah Jazz. David Kopay, a former All-American running back at Washington who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1964, became the first athlete from a major professional team sport to announce his homosexuality in 1975.
But the openly gay male coach dynamic lingers as a taboo topic for coaches and front-office executives in a climate where as much importance is placed upon image control as their teams’ performance on the field.
Until an example thrives on a prominent stage, people inside the gay community say only questions and hypothetical scenarios are available to explore the prospects of an openly gay male coach succeeding in the testosterone-driven climate of modern men’s sports.
In Hawkins’ opinion, there is plenty of work to be done. And he’s not alone.
“You’re going to have issues with basketball. You’re going to have issues with football. You’re going to have issues with wrestling. And I still think with lacrosse,” he says. “Those are of a different nature. They’re a lot more physical. There’s a lot more intimate contact.
“People will believe that you were attracted to a sport because of the physicality — some sort of gay eroticism. There are a lot of fundamentalist Christians — and I’ve seen this in letters written to me and posted on the Web — who believe nobody who works with children should be gay. That’s a skewed vision of gay people as sort of sexual pervert, which absolutely isn’t true.
“But to question gay people’s motives still seems excusable in today’s society. ‘What’s he doing coaching wrestling? Does he just like to see two guys roll around on the mat together?’ People tend to be that way. It lingers from this cultural and religious view of homosexuality being perverted. But we never question a straight male coach of a girls’ basketball team.”
It was September 2005, and Oregon State softball coach Kirk Walker had one final barrier to overcome.
He had never lied about his personal life, but he wasn’t overly open about it either. Walker’s assistant coaches and some OSU administrators had learned about his partner, Randy Baltimore, with whom Walker planned to adopt a child. Walker’s parents had been informed about his homosexuality two years after he met his partner.
Now it was his players’ turn.
“It brought more people into my office in a positive way than it ever did to create any kind of uncomfortable situation,” Walker says.
When Walker came out to his team, he became, according to outsports.com, the only openly gay male Division I coach in the country. It’s a title he carries with indifference, claiming his new-found celebrity hasn’t changed his life, though he sometimes catches himself taken back by the significance of his situation.
“It did make me step back and say, ‘I am really the first?’,” he says. “It’s been relatively uneventful and noncontroversial. I wasn’t anticipating a lot of controversy or negativity, but I didn’t know what to expect.”
Walker coaches women, but he may provide a glimpse into what the first openly gay male coach in a men’s sport could look like: relatively low-key, far from screaming headlines and ESPN sound bites.
Given the pressures that come with coaching major sports such as football and basketball, some speculate that the first men’s sports’ example will surface in a minor program.
“Initially, there would be such turmoil,” Kopay says. “That turmoil isn’t necessarily a good thing in a locker room. It would have to be a coach with a lot of credibility.”
From locker-room interactions to the way the public may perceive a hiring institution or organization, experts say there are many potential areas of conflict for an openly gay male coach in a men’s sport. Some believe the first prominent example will happen in a program far removed from the limelight, probably somewhere in the Northeast or on the West Coast where a liberal political climate will allow for a testing ground.
“That’s where it might be easiest for a gay man to recruit and to build a program without the same kind of attention or pressure on winning, the toll it might take on him personally, in terms of stress,” says Dave Lohse, an openly gay associate athletic communications director at the University of North Carolina. “When it happens, people are going to sit back and wonder what the big deal is.
“It’s going to take someone with the talent to build a program and convince the student athletes and parents that he is a good coach and his sexual orientation isn’t necessary to his ability to do that.
“This is the next step, when somebody can do it successfully and make that transition and get through the period of time that Jackie Robinson had to go through for however many years until we were successful at integrating a sport.”
As the first black player in the major leagues, Robinson endured years of media scrutiny. The first openly gay male coach will likely face a similar test.
How would he handle the media firestorm and analysis of his every move? How would he handle potential negative reaction from boosters and alumni and fans? How would he interact with players in the locker room, a setting known more for its “Animal House” antics than acceptance?
“The biggest hurdle would be how people would act around him,” says Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of outsports.com — a Web forum for gay athletes and coaches. “I talk to athletes all the time who are gay, and especially in the locker room, they are so careful about who they talk to, how they talk to them, how they touch people. Athletes get very sexual with one another in the locker room.
“If you introduce a gay person (into the locker room), then all of the sudden there’s this insane guilt-by-association argument that if you’re horsing around with another guy and there’s an openly gay man present, then you must be gay.”
Others have a different opinion, saying acceptance is possible given the right environment.
“I’m not sure if the testosterone-driven locker room necessarily translates into homophobia,” says Dan Woog, an openly gay boys soccer coach at Staples High School in Westport, Conn. “I’m not sure every football team or ice hockey or lacrosse locker room is a place where people are snapping towels and fag-bashing. I’ve been around athletics enough to know every team dynamic is different, every group of individuals is different.
“Do people say stuff behind my back? I’m sure they do. Have I ever had a player not play for me because of it? I don’t think I have. Kids will ask me about stuff on the news. They’ll talk to me about girlfriend problems. They understand it’s not about guys and guys or guys and girls. In the end, it’s about humanity.”
A different world
Lohse sees change in the near future, a day when the prospect of an openly gay male coach of a men’s team will be as accepted as a black baseball player or a female basketball star.
He points to an evolving society where negative stereotypes based on sexual orientation are eroding as gay and lesbian role models have become more mainstream. In an era when a family can watch prime-time television programs such as “Will & Grace” and “Queer Eye” together, some say it will be only be a matter of time before sports experiences change, as well.
“The change is coming,” Lohse says. “I see a real difference in how kids deal with the issue of sexual orientation. There’s not the same level of fear that I used to see. They’ve grown up in a different age of media. They’ve watched different TV shows, and gay and lesbian kids are coming out at an earlier age.”
Soon, some of those male student-athletes may enter the coaching profession and create the first wave of openly gay coaches of prominent men’s teams. Issues that have kept coaches in the closet in the past, such as shame and fear of the unknown, may become obsolete.
“The world’s changing, because more and more people know someone who is gay,” says Jennifer Allard, an openly gay softball coach at Harvard. “I think the generation that I coach handles it a lot differently than their parents. Kids are exposed to more diversity. We’re educating our kids that differences aren’t bad.”
Walker agrees. “As coaches, we’re evaluated because of how we dress, how we talk, whether we argue with officials, whether we swear, whether we don’t swear,” he says. “It’s just that none of those traits are a component of who we are personally.
“I’d say sports and military are the last two realms of perceived machoism from the male side. Even with the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy, they (men in the military) are still coming out. In the sports world, we don’t have a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy and yet we still see (fewer) sports-minded people coming out. That’s why I think sports will be one of the last fields of perceived straightness that goes down.”
So for a gay community looking for its own Jackie Robinson, a perception change may be in order before progress can be achieved. For some, it can’t come fast enough.
“It’s interesting that the whole dynamic of (a gay coach’s) situation could change if that person stopped hiding who he was and started living a life that was more honest to himself,” Lohse says. “Then my question would be: Has that person’s leadership changed? Has that person’s ability to know how to coach changed? Or is the change in the perception of how other people see him? ... Why those attitudes are so ingrained in our society, I don’t know.”
But for others, the most daunting obstacle may come from within. Once a coach crosses into the threshold of the unknown, there’s no going back. And, for some, that’s scary.
“Saying those words, ‘I’m gay,’ is hard,” Woog says. “You can’t take those words back.”
Leaving a mark
A little more than a year after he became an online phenomenon, Hawkins and his legacy still loom large on the outsports.com message board where it all began:
“I’m a straight Christian male who saw the piece on ESPN about Coach Hawkins. My heart went out to the guy and I hope he lands on his feet.”
Another post reads: “I am new to the board and this is actually the first time I have officially addressed this issue not only to someone else but to myself really. Just saw the feature on SportsCenter about the Missouri lacrosse coach and got the courage to come on here.”
Hawkins says he never anticipated the attention he would receive.
Jackie Robinson was hand-picked by Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey to play his pioneering role.
No one hand-picked Hawkins. He just wanted a place to vent, to get his thoughts out. Seven-hundred forty-two replies later, he had the nation’s attention.
Little did he know he would give others reason to speculate on the future of openly gay male coaches in men’s sports.
“It’s difficult to get past the belief that being an openly gay coach doesn’t in some way jeopardize your situation,” Hawkins says.
Moments later, the interview is over. He closes his phone.
Cultures evolve slowly. The discussion continues.
And Hawkins knows that his story has become part of it.