When Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out of the closet earlier this week, the narrative surrounding the story was that Sam could become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL. The backstory, detailed beautifully by OutSports, delves into the strategy behind to whom Sam would come out and how it would be handled. In January, the site ran a similar feature on Kenyon College lacrosse player Holden Richards that details his decision to come out to his teammates this past fall and how things have gone for him as the season approaches.
The story, which you can find in its entirety here, details Richards’ past at a catholic high school, then religious institutions Nazareth and Kenyon and the different machinations of how he dealt with what was, to him, his hidden identity. The attempts to keep his cover, the image he felt he had to keep up with, and ultimately how he came out to his teammates and his parents.
What shines through the story, however, is the resiliance of Richards and the understanding of college athletes. Much like Sam, Richards has not just been accepted by his teammates, but embraced. Words that can be commonplace in any locker room have been taken out of the vocabulary of Kenyon lacrosse players.
The player said “faggot” over and over until finally the other teammate knocked him down. Whether Richards was within earshot or not, that word was not going to be tolerated by members of the team anymore.
“I’d never stood up to guys for saying it,” the player said. “But now that Holden, a teammate, had come out, I felt like it had no purpose being said by a teammate of his. Since then, the kid has apologized and said he’s taken it out of his vocabulary.”
The message being pushed by NFL general managers – that the league won’t be ready for a gay player for another 10 years or so – is grounded in the cultural divide that exists between the younger players and the veterans. Players in their early- to mid-20s have grown up with gays in their lives and with a message of acceptance in their education. This is why Sam worked at Missouri and Richards is thriving at Kenyon: kids these days are simply more understanding.
The locker room is a place apart from society, there is no question about that. But that does not mean that the locker room culture can’t grow and be a part of the dialogue that is happening all around us in the world today. Kenyon lacrosse and Missouri football – and probably countless other teams around collegiate athletics – have proven that gay athletes can thrive in collegiate athletics, its time for the NFL and the rest of the professional leagues to follow suit.