Recruits open to gay teammates

Survey: 72.9 percent of recruits would commit to team with openly gay player

Updated: July 22, 2014, 8:44 AM ET
By Jeremy Crabtree | RecruitingNation

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel knew the question was coming. Even though it had been six months since Tigers defensive lineman Michael Sam publicly announced he was gay and became the first openly gay player drafted in the NFL, Pinkel understood he was going to be asked about the declaration at SEC media days.

When asked about how the announcement affected his program, Pinkel talked about how he believed the people at Missouri handled themselves with class the days and weeks after Sam came out. But then he paused midway through his answer for a few moments, collected his thoughts and said he hopes five years from now a player's sexual orientation isn't even a topic.

"I hope that we've moved on," Pinkel said. "And we respect people for what they are and what they do."

It might not take five years to get to that point, though, at least with the players that will soon be in college locker rooms.

ESPN.com conducted a wide-ranging survey of the top 300 high school football recruits in the nation, and 72.9 percent of the respondents said they would select a program where there is an openly gay player on the roster. Interviews conducted at The Opening with a number of the nation's elite recruits from different high schools all over the country backed up the results.

"It doesn't really bother me," said Apopka, Florida, offensive tackle Martez Ivey, the nation's No. 2 ranked prospect. "If they were gay and came out, honestly most everybody at our school would already know. People don't seem to be too shy about expressing themselves anymore, especially when you're in high school. If it doesn't affect them, then why should it affect me? Who cares who he likes?"

Offensive tackle Matt Burrell Jr., a four-star player from Woodbridge, Virginia, said he was a little bit surprised with the results of the survey, but with an openly gay family member, he was pleased that many of college football's future stars "believe in acceptance rather than rejection."

"It would be an honor to play with somebody that has that much confidence to come out when it's still considered wrong by some people," Burrell, the nation's No. 43-ranked player, said. "I have a gay uncle, and I love him for who he is. But I think if you ask a majority of the players in high school they would be OK with it. There will be some that might have some issues with it, but some will always complain about anything. But if you're living in a shell and not happy keeping a secret, then you're not living to your full potential."

Four-star Missouri quarterback commitment Drew Lock and fifth-ranked pocket passing quarterback Sam Darnold both said they would be more concerned about issues like alcohol abuse or smoking pot more than a teammate's sexual orientation.

The views expressed by the recruits mirror nationwide trends, according to Dr. Vincent Pompei, the Director of Youth Well-Being Project at the Human Rights Campaign. Pompei said in June 2012, the HRC -- the nation's largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans -- conducted "Growing up LGBT in America," a survey of more than 10,000 youth ages 13-17.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonWhile Michael Sam became the face of openly gay athletes, studies are showing acceptance of openly gay people is growing among high school students.

The survey of both LGBT-identified and straight-identified students revealed that 91 percent of LGBT-identified youth are out to their close friends, 75 percent say that most of their peers do not have a problem with their identity and 64 percent are out to their classmates in general. Pompei, a former middle school teacher, counselor and soccer coach, said those numbers are significant compared to data from the past.

"The great news is their peers -- this next generation -- they're not having the issues that we saw in previous generations," Pompei said.

"I think this next generation is very different from my generation and our parent's generation. I think there are a lot of reasons for that. One of them is that there is so much more information that's readily available. We have access to the Internet and websites that you had to be really wealthy to have access to when I was a kid. That coupled with media, and the fact that media is also addressing this from a cultural competency standpoint, helps better inform the youth of today.

"I think young people have realized the truth that being LGBT is just different and not bad and not contagious and something to be uncomfortable around. This generation is definitely not having the issues like kids did when we were growing up."

Based on his experience with the HRC, and as a public educator, Pompei believes the data acquired by ESPN.com is an accurate reflection of what star high school athletes are thinking in today's world. In fact, Pompei said the number of recruits that would play at a program where there is an openly gay player on the roster is higher than what the survey revealed.

"Our society kind of tells us, especially in a sport like football, that you have to hold on to your masculinity, you have to be homophobic because that means you're masculine," Pompei said. "The fact that [a] percentage of students said they're OK with it, is a quite honest answer.

"I would think [the real answer] actually higher, but some feel like they have to be homophobic in order to keep their machismo in check. I think it's quite accurate and maybe even underestimated because some probably felt like they couldn't say that."

If they were gay and came out, honestly most everybody at our school would already know. People don't seem to be too shy about expressing themselves anymore, especially when you're in high school. If it doesn't affect them, then why should it affect me? Who cares who he likes?

-- Martez Ivey, ESPN 300 offensive tackle

As a head football coach, physical education teacher and athletic director in both Texas and Kansas since 1981, Olathe (Kansas) North coach Gene Wier has witnessed the transformation of attitudes with his players firsthand. Wier, who has won six state championships and also coached Philadelphia Eagles running back Darren Sproles, talked of a time when gay students couldn't walk down the hallway without a threat of being mocked or ridiculed, but now he notices a real sense of acceptance in his locker room and with the students he works with daily in his classroom.

"I recently watched the movie '42'," Wier said. "There were people in the Major Leagues that didn't want to play with a black baseball player. That's not even a question today. If you surveyed those same [players] that you did for ESPN and ask them would they go to a college with a minority player on the team, they would think you're crazy. I think the youth of today's view on sexual orientation is much like it was on race years ago.

"I just don't think kids think too much about it. It's so common place for them. We have three kids here that Missouri has offered, and not one says 'I don't want to go there.' It's not even a topic to be honest."

While the majority of recruits said they would have no issues of playing with a gay player, there were some that admitted they were still a little bit hesitant and would feel more comfortable if they knew in advance if the player was gay.

"We're all men," said Manassas, Virginia, defensive tackle Tim Settle, the nation's No. 9 prospect. "We don't want anybody looking at us in a certain way or something like that or them being attracted to us. I don't have any problems with gay people, but I think it would probably be better for him to come out in advance instead of somebody finding out a big secret. I wouldn't have anything against him. I wouldn't treat him wrong or anything. I would just be more, you know, at ease if I knew what the situation was."

But if there's one common theme from those recruits interviewed about the topic, it's that backgrounds and lifestyles become secondary to respect and being a good teammate.

"As long as he's a cool guy and a good teammate that's willing to put in the blood, sweat and tears that everybody else does, then I think most recruits in today's world would be very accepting, even if they disagree with it deep down," Darnold, the San Clemente, California, QB product said. "If he doesn't treat me any different, then I won't treat him any different."

Jeremy Crabtree

RecruitingNation, Reporter

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