With strides by Collins, Sam and Griner, are the Gay Games still relevant?

Gay Games VII Opening Ceremony in Chicago

The past year marked a watershed for LGBT sports. Athletes at every level — professional, college, high school and amateur — at first ventured, then flooded, out of the closet. Media attention no longer treats gay athletes as exotic creatures, all but unheard of in the real world; stories now focus on more nuanced aspects of their lives. Homophobes are increasingly marginalized, banished from the sidelines to the back row of the bleachers.

In some ways (though we’re still waiting for that first huge-name pro male team-sport athlete to come out), LGBT athletics has reached the point we’ve long waited for: normalcy.

So does that mean there’s no longer any need for the Gay Games?

Thousands of athletes, a hefty lineup of corporate sponsors, and hundreds of paid and volunteer organizers insist there is.

The next edition of the event first held 32 years ago in San Francisco, Gay Games 9, opens at the end of this week, running for nine days from Aug. 9-16 in the Cleveland and Akron, Ohio, area. Patterned on the Olympic Games (but denied use of the “O” word by a legal challenge), the Gay Games are now an international spectacle.

—  admin

Division I basketball player comes out

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Derrick Gordon, left. (Photo by ESPN)

Derrick Gordon, a sophomore starter for the University of Massachusetts men’s basketball team, stepped forward Wednesday as the first openly gay player in Division I men’s college basketball, sharing his story with ESPN and Outsports, ABC News reported.

The 22-year-old shooting guard came out to his family, coaches and teammates in just a few days at the beginning of April. That’s when he also decided to publicly acknowledge his sexuality.

 ”I just didn’t want to hide anymore, in any way,” Gordon told ESPN. “I didn’t want to have to lie or sneak. I’ve been waiting and watching for the last few months, wondering when a Division I player would come out, and finally I just said, ‘Why not me?’”

Gordon, a native of Plainfield, N.J., said that a key moment for him came when the Brooklyn Nets signed veteran center Jason Collins to a 10-day contract in February. Collins, who publicly acknowledged his sexuality in April 2013, became the first openly gay player in NBA history when he took the court against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 23.

“That was so important to me, knowing that sexuality didn’t matter, that the NBA was OK with it,” Gordon said.

A number of people in the UMass athletic administration worked closely with Gordon behind the scenes as he prepared to come out to his teammates.

 ”UMass is proud to have Derrick Gordon as a member of our athletic family and to honor his courage and openness as a gay student-athlete,” athletic director John McCutcheon said in a written statement. “UMass is committed to creating a welcoming climate where every student-athlete, coach and staff member can be true to themselves as they pursue their athletic, academic and professional goals.”

Gordon said he reached his decision to come out publicly in the days after the team’s first-round loss to Tennessee in the NCAA tournament on March 21.

“I just had a lot of time to myself, thinking, and I didn’t know what I was waiting for,” said Gordon, who transferred to UMass after one season at Western Kentucky.

In his first season with UMass, the 6-foot-3 Gordon averaged 9.4 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. He started all 33 of the Minutemen’s games and had a season-high 22 points on Nov. 21 against Nebraska.

 He played his high school basketball at St. Patrick High in Elizabeth, N.J., one of the best prep programs in the country, then went on to lead Western Kentucky in scoring as a freshman with 11.8 points per game. The team made the NCAA tournament, and Gordon was a third-team All-Sun Belt Conference player as a true freshman, but he decided to transfer so he could be closer to his family.

Gordon came out to his teammates on April 2, after telling UMass coach Derek Kellogg in a phone conversation three days earlier. Kellogg stood by Gordon’s side in the team meeting.

“From speaking with Derrick, I realized the pressure he had, the weight that was on his shoulders,” Kellogg said. “You can already see in his demeanor that he is so much happier. I actually think this is something that brings our team closer together and helps Derrick play more freely.”

Sophomore forward Tyler Bergantino said that even before Gordon addressed his teammates, there was something different in his demeanor.

 ”He looked happier, stress-free, like that was the real him,” Bergantino said. “Before, when he would walk into the locker room, there was this cloud around him, like you couldn’t quite get to him.”

About a year ago, Gordon reached out to Wade Davis, executive director of the You Can Play Project, a group that works to ensure respect and safety for all athletes without regard for sexual orientation. Davis connected Gordon to a network of allies behind the scenes, and Gordon told ESPN these connections have been instrumental for him.

“Over the past year, I’ve gotten to know Derrick Gordon,” Davis said. “He’s like a little brother to me. I’ve watched him grow into a confident young man who is ready to be a leader on and off the court. His fearless desire to be his authentic self and his personal story of triumph will inspire others and continue to expand consciousness.”

According to Gordon, after he made his announcement, one of his teammates immediately spoke up and said, “We got you; you’re one of us.” Afterward, Gordon and four other members of the team ate dinner together.

“Before, I usually just kept to myself because I didn’t want to lie or be fake,” Gordon said. “But not anymore. I feel so good right now. It’s like this huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”

—  Steve Ramos

Out former Husker urges support for Neb. bill to update nondiscrimination laws

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Eric Lueshen

More than a decade ago, Eric Lueshen did the unthinkable at a Division I school. He walked out on to the football field as an out gay player. It was 2003. And it was at the University of Nebraska, a heavyweight in college football. No other player at a major university had done that.

Dallas Voice interviewed Lueshen and published a story about his experiences in the Feb. 14 issue. His dedication to LGBT causes and equality issues hasn’t dissipated since his college years. Lueshen has recently accepted requests to be the grand marshall in Pride parades, and he’s now writing letters to gather support for the passage of Legislative Bill 485, which would change Nebraska’s non-discrimination statutes to extend special protections to sexual orientation and gender identity. Several newspapers, including the McCook Daily Gazette have published his letter. You can read it below.

Dear Editor,

From 2003-2006, I was an openly gay Husker football player hailing from Pierce, Nebraska. Teammates, coaches, fellow athletes, my family, and people from all over supported and accepted me for who I was. What mattered to them was the person I was on the inside; someone with strong moral values and great character.

If my fellow teammates could accept and love me for being gay over a decade ago, why is it so hard to accept other LGBT people in the workplace here in Nebraska now?

LB 485, pending before the Nebraska Legislature, would update our nondiscrimination laws to include equal employment opportunities for LGBT Nebraskans. Current law already protects people from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, marital status or national origin. No one should be fired for who they are and who they love. It is a simple matter of fairness and justice. It sends the positive message that Nebraska is a welcoming place to live and work.

Gay and Lesbians in Nebraska pay taxes, vote, serve in the military, and run successful businesses. We go to school, play football, and cheer for the Huskers. We should be treated equally under the law.

I believe that most Nebraskans want to treat each other fairly and do the right thing. But when good judgment breaks down, we need to have laws that protect people. No one should have to live in fear that they can be fired from their job for a reason that has nothing to do with their job performance.

I fully support LB485, and I’m sure my former Husker teammates and coaches do as well. Please join me in the fight for equal employment opportunities for LGBT Nebraskans. I urge you to ask your legislator to act for equality and vote for LB485.

Sincerely,

Eric Lueshen

—  Steve Ramos

Jerry Jones: Dallas Cowboys would welcome a gay player

Jerry Jones

Jerry Jones

Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys and arguably the most famous of the league’s 32 owners, told Wade Davis, a former defensive back who came out in 2012, that he and the Cowboys would welcome an openly gay player.

“When someone like him speaks out, the world changes,” Davis told USA TODAY Sports.

Davis spoke to NFL owners, coaches and general managers about sexual orientation in sports on Wednesday in Orlando, Fla. Davis came out nine years after his last stint on an NFL roster ended and has already received positive feedback from meetings in New York with NFL officials, including commissioner Roger Goodell, over the past several months.

But there was a moment after his second presentation, this one to team owners on Tuesday morning, that confirmed to Davis just how much impact he had made in the quest to eliminate homophobia in the NFL.

But it wasn’t just Jones. It was coaches like John Fox of the Denver Broncos, who called Davis’ presentation the best he had ever seen at these annual meetings, and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who said it is up to NFL owners to spearhead this culture change.

Respect in the workplace has been the overarching theme at the league’s annual meetings, from the fallout of the Miami Dolphins locker room bullying scandal to discussions about use of racial slurs to preparations for the league’s first openly gay player in former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who came out last month and is preparing for the draft.

“I think the most important thing is that it is a matter of respect,” Blank told USA TODAY Sports. “How we live is more important than what we say about it. The guidance that we’re getting from the league is outstanding, and the attention that it is getting is outstanding. But is up to us to make sure it becomes a living part of our culture, with more sensitivity, more awareness of the impact of what we’re saying.”

Davis said he was approached by numerous coaches and other team executives to visit with teams. He hasn’t set up any presentations yet, but Davis and Troy Vincent, the former Pro Bowl defensive back who was named the NFL’s vice present of football operations, will work to set up a program for speaking directly to players.

“I might share more of my personal stories with players, but I’m going to let them know that hey, we don’t want to be treated any differently, we just want to be part of the NFL family, too,” said Davis, who played two years for NFL Europe and participated in three NFL training camps.

Fox’s Broncos team could be among those Davis visits this year, though Fox won’t wait to share what he learned in Orlando once he returns to Denver.

“You need diversification in everything — even sexual orientation. It has to be in the conversation,” Fox said. “I think it was very profound. It was definitely eye-opening for me.”

—  Steve Ramos

Jason Collins signs contract with Brooklyn Nets, becomes first openly gay player in NBA

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Jason Collins

Jason Collins became the NBA’s first active openly gay player Sunday, signing a 10-day contract with the Brooklyn Nets, the Associated Press reported.

Collins will join the Nets for their game Sunday night in Los Angeles against the Lakers. The 35-year-old center revealed at the end of last season he is gay, but he was a free agent and had remained unsigned.

With a need for another big man, the Nets turned to the 7-foot Collins, who helped them reach two NBA Finals in the early 2000s.

“The decision to sign Jason was a basketball decision,” general manager Billy King said in a statement. “We needed to increase our depth inside, and with his experience and size, we felt he was the right choice for a 10-day contract.”

Collins has played 12 NBA seasons, including his first seven with the Nets, when they were in New Jersey and Jason Kidd was their point guard. Kidd is now the Nets’ coach and Collins has been a teammate of several other current Nets.

“Jason told us that his goal was to earn another contract with an NBA team. Today, I want to commend him on achieving his goal. I know everyone in the NBA family is excited for him and proud that our league fosters an inclusive and respectful environment,” Commissioner Adam Silver said.

The Nets worked out Collins during the All-Star break and met with him again Sunday, with his twin brother, Jarron, hinting that history would be made.

“Hope everyone is enjoying their Sunday. Today should be a pretty cool day!” Jarron Collins wrote on Twitter.

The news on Collins comes as Michael Sam, the SEC defensive player of the year from Missouri who recently revealed he is gay, is taking part in the NFL draft combine. Sam’s on-field workouts in Indianapolis are scheduled for Monday.

Jason Collins played 38 games last season with Boston and Washington and averaged 1.1 points and 1.6 rebounds in limited minutes. For his career, the 7-foot Collins averages 3.6 points and 3.8 rebounds.

His announcement last spring was followed by numerous NBA players insisting he would be welcomed in the locker room. Collins has played for five other teams and is well respected inside and outside the league — he attended the State of the Union as a guest of first lady Michelle Obama.

“I just know Jason as a person and as a player. That’s what I’m happy about. He has earned it. He’s a great guy. It’s good for the league. The important thing is to judge him as a person and a basketball player,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said.

“I know people who have coached him, and I know how highly thought of he is.”

The Nets had an opening for a big man after trading Reggie Evans along with Jason Terry to Sacramento on Wednesday for guard Marcus Thornton. King said Thursday that Collins would be among the players they would look at, insisting they wouldn’t be concerned about any extra attention the signing of Collins would provide.

“We’re going to bring in a basketball player,” King said. “It’s not about marketing or anything like that.”

The Nets posted a photo on their Twitter account of Kidd watching Collins sign his contract, encouraging followers to retweet it to welcome Collins to Brooklyn.

Collins is tied for third in Nets history with 510 games played, and also ranks in their top 10 in minutes played, and offensive rebounds and total rebounds. A limited offensive player, the Nets hope he still provides a presence defensively and on the boards.

“I know Jason Collins is a competitor. One thing I know about him is he fouls very hard,” Miami’s Dwyane Wade said with a laugh. “He’s one of those tough veterans. I’m sure he’s happy to be back playing in the league. Welcome back.”

—  Steve Ramos

Cornhuskers had an out gay player a decade before Michael Sam came out

From 2003 to 2006, Eric Lueshen played for the University of Nebraska under head coach Bill Callahan, now the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator

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GROUNDBREAKER | Eric Lueshen and his niece, Aubryn, share a moment on the backyard swing. Lueshen was an out football player at the University of Nebraska from 2003-2006. (Photos Courtesy of Eric Lueshen)

 

STEVE RAMOS  |  Senior Editor

Eric Lueshen walked into his Chicago apartment a few days ago, and his roommate asked him, “Did you see that thing about Michael Sam?”

Lueshen didn’t know what his roommate was talking about, so he logged onto Facebook and read the news that was captivating the country. Sam, a University of Missouri defensive lineman, first-team All-American, Missouri’s most valuable player and a likely NFL draft choice, had come out.

“I saw that HRC had posted an ad about it, so I read that and did a little Google search,” Lueshen said. “I shared that HRC status on my Facebook page, congratulating Michael and how cool I thought it was that he came out.”

“This is great news and I am very happy for him,” Lueshen wrote. “I was an openly gay football player from 2003-2006 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, although my career wasn’t as glamorous due to reasons such as a back surgery.”

More than a decade before Sam came out, after his college football career was over, Lueshen had been out — while playing football for another powerhouse university. But the media didn’t swing its spotlights on Lueshen and make him a household name, as they have Sam.

“Maybe the culture wasn’t ready at that time,” Lueshen said about the absence of media coverage of an out college football player. “Maybe we weren’t ready at that time to have a story about being out and playing football.”

There was talk about him, although the broadcast and print journalists never mentioned his name as a gay football player at Nebraska.

“I do know that when I was a freshman or sophomore, I can’t remember which,” Lueshen said, “my dad called me and said, ‘You’ll never guess what I heard. In Lincoln, they’re talking about whether Nebraska is ready for an openly gay football player. Your name was never mentioned, though.’”

And to this day, it hasn’t been.

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FAN DAY | No. 91 Eric Lueshen was a walk-on kicker with the University of Nebraska. He came out when he was 17, and he said he wasn’t going to go back into the closet in college.

Lueshen grew up in Pierce, a town of about 1,700 in Northeast Nebraska, and when he was 17 he did something most young people in a rural conservative town wouldn’t have the courage to do — he came out.

“My mom was amazing,” he said. “She accepted me and said she had always known. My dad was very homophobic at the time, and we had a rocky relationship, but he has completely changed and is very supportive now. There’s not even an ounce of homophobia in him now.”

In high school, Lueshen excelled in football and track, but there had been rough years before that. He had been picked on for being gay, years before he had even begun to deal with the issue. Fortitude, a trait he says he inherited from his mother and grandmother, not only got him through those difficulties, it shored up a backbone that was already strong.

“I never thought I wished I wasn’t gay,” he said. “I was happy with who I was and comfortable in my skin. I know it’s cliché, but it is true that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The hardships only made me stronger.”

Lueshen needed that strength at the University of Nebraska. He had an academic scholarship, not an athletic one. The coaches who had recruited him were forced into retirement, and the scholarship talks went with them. Lueshen entered Nebraska’s football program as a walk-on, shouldering not only the burden of proving himself as a kicker but doing it as an out gay man.

“I wasn’t going to jump in the closet in college,” he said. “I’m not the type of person to parade around with rainbow flags, but if someone asks me if I’m gay, I’m going to say yes.”

And he was asked.

“I’d see the guys talk and whisper, and I assumed they were talking about me. Then one day I was eating with a couple of my teammates, and they didn’t have a filter. They said, ‘So, pretty boy. Are you gay?’ I looked up and smiled at them and said, ‘Yeah. Is there a problem?’

They said, ‘No. Just wanted to check.’ They were two of the most popular guys, and the word got out through them. But because they accepted me, pretty much everyone else did, too.”

Those who accepted him included head coach Bill Callahan who today is the Dallas Cowboys’ offensive coordinator.

“He was really nice to me,” Lueshen said. “When my college football career was over because of back surgery, and I had to tell him, I was choking up, and so was he. He was very supportive of me.” Callahan didn’t respond to requests for an interview by press time.

Some of the coaches, though, didn’t share Callahan’s open mind, and a few of them made it difficult for Lueshen on the field.

“That only made me more motivated to work my ass off,” Lueshen said. “I was in the position not only to prove myself as a walk-on but being openly gay. I set out to prove those coaches wrong. I’d work my butt off in the weight room. I would show them I deserved a chance to play.”

For two seasons, Lueshen did work his “ass off,” and he was noticed. In 2005, he was one of the favorites for a starting position.

“But then during the spring, I was accidently roughed by a teammate during a field goal. I was out for about 14 practices with a damaged hamstring. They wrote me off and replaced me. Right after that season I had a spinal fusion.”

Because of those injuries, Lueshen didn’t get to show the scoffing coaches, or the world, how much he had honed his athletic abilities. But he did something more powerful. He changed the mental landscape at the University of Nebraska.

“I opened up so many minds and saw so many people change,” he said. “I admit that sometimes it is hard to watch the NFL and see some of my teammates playing and thinking that could be me, but my life took another path, and that’s OK. There were a lot of positive outcomes from being openly gay and changing people’s lives.”

But the memories of those days linger, one of them still intense after 13 years. While in high school, Lueshen attended a kicking camp where kickers from the Division I schools were assisting. Among those who were coaching the hopefuls was Jan Stenerud, the only placekicker to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Jan came over to me” Lueshen said, “put his Hall of Fame ring on my finger and said, ‘You will have one of these one day.’ I still get chocked up when I remember that.”

When asked about the comments from NFL players who said they would feel uncomfortable showering with a gay teammate, Lueshen said those statements “are ignorant.”

“I had the same question asked when I was at Nebraska,” he said. “I would say, ‘I’m here to get clean. There’s nothing sexual about this.

We’re a family. You’re going through hell in the trenches of the workouts. You become so close as a family, why would you want to jeopardize that by doing something stupid in the locker room?”

Today, Lueshen is completing his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, and he hopes his story and Sam’s story will instill courage in other people.

“I’m sure there are others who have similar stories of being an openly gay college football player,” he wrote on Facebook, “however their stories (like mine) were never publicized … which really doesn’t bother me at all. I was just being me.

“Hopefully more gay college football players (and other collegiate athletes) will take this example and have enough pride and courage to come out themselves.”

To the people who are fearful of coming out, Lueshen says, “Life is so much happier on the other side of fear. Never be ashamed of who you are. Live life as 100 percent of your authentic self. There will be hardships no matter if you’re gay or straight. Don’t let that push you down the wrong path.”

—  Steve Ramos

College football star says he’s gay, may become first openly gay player in NFL

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Michael Sam

Michael Sam, the University of Missouri defensive end who was the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year in 2013, has come out publicly as gay, Outsports reported. If selected in the May draft or if signed as a free agent, he would become the first publicly gay player in NFL history.

Sam, 24, was out to his Missouri team last season and made his decision to go public about his sexual orientation less than two weeks before the NFL Draft Combine in Indianapolis, an event where draft prospects show off their skills and are tested by the 32 NFL teams. Sam’s story was published simultaneously Sundary in interviews with ESPN and the New York Times, and by Outsports.

“Once I became official to my teammates, I knew who I was,” Sam told John Branch of the New York Times. “I knew that I was gay. And I knew that I was Michael Sam, who’s a Mizzou football player who happens to be gay. I was so proud of myself and I just didn’t care who knew. If someone on the street would have asked me, ‘Hey, Mike, I heard you were gay. Is that true?’ I would have said yes.

“But no one asked. I guess they don’t want to ask a 6-3, 260-pound defensive lineman if he was gay or not.”

In coming out now, Sam said he wanted him being gay to be known to the fans and front office of any team that drafted him. It would also be less of a distraction to come out in February as opposed to after the draft, during summer training camp or during the season, his agents Joe Barkett and Cameron Weiss said.

“I want to own my truth,” Sam told the Times.

Asked if he was nervous about the step he is taking, Sam told people at a Saturday night dinner party at the Los Angeles home of publicist Howard Bragman: “You all are the ones who are nervous. I’m excited.”

Sam was a standout on the Missouri Tigers team that went 12-2, which included a win in the Cotton Bowl. His 11.5 sacks, 19 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles won him co-defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference, the highest-ranked conference in college football.

His honors this year were numerous: first-team All-SEC; first-team All-America from the Sporting News, Walter Camp Football Foundation, Associated Press, America Football Coaches Association and the Football Writers Association of America. His skills as a lineman have him projected by draft analysts to be selected this May anywhere from the second to fifth rounds, depending on how he performs in the combine and at Missouri’s pro day this spring. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. is high on Sam and projects him as a third- or fourth-round selection based on previous NFL history of players with similar skills.

Throughout high school, Sam considered himself bisexual and dated girls. It was only once he enrolled at Missouri that he finally realized he was gay. Once out to himself, he never tried to hide it and told his Missouri Tigers teammates officially before the 2013 season. While he said many people on the team knew or suspected, he told them all he was gay during a team bonding meeting in August. Players were asked to share something about them that no one knew, and Sam decided that this was the best time to let everyone know who didn’t already.

—  Steve Ramos

Out athletes plan to be seen, heard at Sochi Olympics

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Out Dutch Olympian Cheryl Maas

Tensions are high as the 2014 Winter Olympics prepare to get underway Thursday with figure skating and skiing events and then with the globally televised opening ceremony Friday. While there is a tremendous amount of anxiety over the possibility of a terrorist attack against the Games in Sochi, Russia, there is also considerable uncertainty around who might protest the country’s new anti-gay laws and how and when they might do so. Beyond the expectation that some might wear rainbow pins or hats that include “P6,” a reference to the Olympic charter’s non-discrimination policy, there are hints of bands playing “YMCA” and one skater promising to “rip” into Russian President Vladimir Putin after she’s finished her competition.

There is even more uncertainty about what the Russian government will do to anyone who does protest or violate its laws by expressing some positive message about being gay.

In a conference call with reporters last week, the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, said athletes would “enjoy freedom of speech” at a press conference, but they could be punished if they do so during competition or on a medal podium. But a few days later, the chief executive of the Olympic Games in Russia, Dmitry Chernyshenko, seemed to contradict that statement.

“I don’t think [athletes] are allowed by the [Olympic] Charter to express those views that are not related to the sport at the press conference room,” said Chernyshenko. “What I would call the Sochi ‘speakers’ corner’ has been organized in Sochi city so that everybody can express themselves.”

The so-called “speakers’ corner” is a cordoned-off protest area six or seven miles from the site of the Olympics.

Outsports.com, a site devoted to news about LGBT athletes in both professional and amateur sports, says it has found only six openly gay athletes coming to the Sochi Olympics. All are women, none are American, and they represent an “an improbably low number” among the 2,500 athletes coming to the games.

The six include three speed skaters (Canadian Anatasia Bucsis and Dutch Ireen Wust and Sanne van Kerkhof), two snowboarders (Dutch Cheryl Maas and Australian Belle Brockhoff), and one Slovenian cross country skier (Barbara Jezeršek).

“Either GLBT athletes are uniquely bad at winter sports,” wrote the Outsports, “or dozens — perhaps 100 or more— must be competing in Sochi while in the closet.”

By Sunday, the site announced a seventh openly gay competitor: Finnish Olympic swimmer Ari-Pekka Liukkonen, who swims the men’s 50-meter freestyle. Liukkonen came out on Finnish television and said his family and teammates have taken the news well.

For U.S. television audiences interested in watching the Olympics for signs of LGBT demonstrations or visibility, there are two options: watch a condensed broadcast of the events each evening on NBC, which is covering the events, or watch live web streams at NBCOlympics.com, keeping in mind that Sochi is nine hours ahead of U.S. east coast time.

The following is a list of specific events at which the potential for LGBT visibility is higher than most:

—  Steve Ramos

College football player comes out to team

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Conner Mertens

Conner Mertens, the Willamette University football team‘s up-and-coming kicker, had asked head coach Glen Fowles for some office time last Monday to discuss something important. Fowles has been on the team’s staff for 18 years. He’s moved up the ranks from offensive line coach to offensive coordinator and a year ago was named the team’s head coach. Before that he played on the offensive line for the Bearcats for two seasons.

In his two decades at Willamette, an hour south of Portland, Ore., he’s never had to handle anything like this.

Fowles and his special teams coordinator feared Mertens would tell them he was transferring to another school. While Mertens is a red-shirt freshman and missed the 2013 season due to injury, he has the potential to be the team’s place kicker for the next four years. It would be a tough loss for the team.

When Mertens arrived for the meeting, Fowles started a subtle soft-sell on the school. Willamette offered great opportunities, the personnel was top-notch, the academics were stellar and Mertens’ future with the team was bright. Mertens laughed.

“I’m not going anywhere, coach,” Mertens said.

That was a relief.

Mertens asked Fowles if he was a good kicker. Fowles confirmed. He then asked if his role on the team would be affected by things he did off the field, or if he’d be judged by his performance. All that mattered to Fowles was whether he could kick that ball through those two goal posts. That was reassuring, Mertens said, because he had something very personal to share with his coach.

“I’m bisexual,” Mertens told Fowles. “I like dudes. I have a boyfriend. And next week, I’m going to tell the world.”

Mertens didn’t easily arrive at his decision to come out to his coach or team, let alone publicly. No college football player in the United States at any level has ever come out publicly while still playing. Some have come out to their team, many have come out to friends, but none has said publicly they are LGBT.

As a red-shirt freshman, Mertens hasn’t played a down for Willamette. With no college experience under his belt and the starting place-kicker position for next season up in the air, it would be easy for a coach to find ways to bury him on the depth chart and quietly push him off the team.

He was taking a big risk. Yet for Mertens, the potential gain for both himself and other youth like him simply outweighed the risk.

—  Steve Ramos

Out on the field

Scott Bloom was closeted during his high school wrestling career, but he found 4 brave gay student athletes to come out for his new documentary

MARATHON MEN | Getting teen athletes and their families to feel comfortable coming out on film was a challenge for documentarian Scott Bloom.

DAN WOOG  | Contributing Sports Writer
outfield@qsyndicate.com

There are three keys to successful documentary filmmaking: A good subject, a good story line and good luck. Scott Bloom found all three.

His goal in making Out for the Long Run — a movie about gay high school athletes — was to go beyond “the regular coming-out stories.” Bloom, a former closeted wrestler who had been terrified of being outed, ostracized or beaten up, knew there were “extraordinary individuals” out there. He wanted to highlight their accomplishments, and provide hope to LGBT people of all ages, everywhere.

The first problem was finding those young athletes. The second was convincing them — and their parents — to be filmed.

He asked organizations like GLSEN and PFLAG for help. But although he’d produced one film on Metropolitan Community Church founder the Rev. Troy Perry, and another on the “oldest gay organization in the world” (a motorcycle club), he admits he was “an unknown quantity.”

The project stalled. Then Bloom saw a Facebook page for gay athletes. With permission from creator Lucas Goodman, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology rower, Bloom asked for volunteers.

He got a dozen or two responses. Some of their parents objected, and blurring faces or filming in shadows would undercut the idea of openness. Plus, Bloom hoped to include the parents’ stories, too. In the end he settled on four athletes, with a cross-section of experiences.

When he began shooting, some of Bloom’s old fears resurfaced. “I worried all over again about being ‘thrown out of the locker room,’” he says. “But everyone was very gentle to me.”

He learned that today’s gay youth “have fewer hang-ups than my generation did. They define sexuality more fluidly. That’s refreshing. It gives me hope. I was definitely not as self-aware at that age.”

Bloom’s lucky break came when he found Austin Snyder. The track star was entering his senior year at California’s Berkeley High School. (The other three athletes were already in college.) He had a great, supportive family. He was smart, popular and embraced by his teammates.

Snyder’s story would provide a counterpoint to Brenner Green, a Connecticut College runner whose father had a hard time accepting his son’s sexuality, and who stopped being invited to team dinners after coming out in high school; Goodman, who had difficulty coming out to teammates; and Liz Davenport, a soccer player from Maine whose love for sports was undermined by the bullying she endured. (She ended up “probably the most heroic,” Bloom says, “after struggling and maturing the most.”)

Snyder, a very articulate teenager, lives through what is in many ways a typical high school year. He desperately hopes to get into Brown University — but an injury causes both physical and emotional stress. The usually self-confident runner wonders if he is being punished for his sexuality.

It’s not easy being a senior — especially when you’re gay. “I’m a big romantic,” Snyder says. “High school is all about the guys getting the girls. Running helps take away the hurt of not having someone.”

Then Snyder gets the news: He’s into Brown. He goes from “the lowest low to the highest high.” In a scene repeated in homes across the country, he is giddy with excitement.

But as graduation approaches, Snyder says, “All my friends are happy and dating. I want that!”

He creates a Facebook group for cross country and track athletes heading to Brown. He joins another group for all admitted students where, he says, “all the gay men have found each other.”

Suddenly, Snyder finds someone special: a swimmer from North Carolina. Online they flirt, then talk seriously for weeks. Then, in a plot twist that would sound unbelievable in a real movie — except it’s true — Snyder qualifies for a national race. In North Carolina.

Bloom films their meeting. It’s a truly sweet scene. Later, his new boyfriend gives him a tender pre-race kiss.

The final scene also seems right out of a teen flick. Snyder delivers a graduation speech at Berkeley High. He talks about diversity and change, and urges his classmates: “Use your open-minded spirit.” Snyder’s coach says, “Austin’s story gives hope for what can be.” His father adds simply, “I’m extremely proud of Austin.”

Out for the Long Run is a powerful film. “I never expected a sports film to make people cry,” Bloom says. “But people tell me it makes them remember the fears and emotions they buried years earlier.”

And, echoing Snyder’s coach, it generates hope in unlikely places. Five rural school districts in Louisiana have bought copies for each middle and high school. The counseling director will use it as a teaching tool.

Which means its lessons will be remembered by students — gay and straight — for a long, long run.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 2, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens