The LGBT sports movement has gained a lot of steam over the past few years. With diversity training and support coming from athlete outreach programs such as Changing the Game, Athlete Ally, You Can Play and Go! Athletes, the evolution of accepting an out athlete into a team situation has progressed rapidly.
A lot of the new dynamic has been accomplished through the changing attitudes in sports leadership. Coaches, athletic directors and sports team managers are feeling the social responsibility to create safe environments for their athletes.
The result of these changes is that more athletes are starting to come out, but we wouldn’t be where we are now without the athletes who stepped forward in the past.
In the collegiate setting, one of the early athlete pioneers was Evan Cobb, a varsity swimmer from Oberlin College who voluntarily came out during the first few months of his freshman year in 1997.
Cobb, from Fredonia, N.Y., was directed to the small liberal arts college in Ohio by an aunt who was involved with the Conservatory of Music at Oberlin. She believed that the left- leaning countercultural atmosphere of the campus would offer Cobb the opportunity to thrive.
His aunt was right about the vibe on the Oberlin campus and Cobb decided to come out to his coach, Dick Michaels, in October of 1997.
“I knew it was going to be tough,” Cobb says. “When I walked into his office, he looked up at me and said, ‘You have been missing practices. What’s up?’”
Cobb went on to have a positive athletic college experience and still thinks of Michaels as one of the most important mentors in his life. What he didn’t know at the time was that Michaels’ own son had come out just a few days earlier.
A year later, in Cobb’s sophomore year, Michael Muska was hired as athletic director at Oberlin College and was quickly outed by the Chronicle of Higher Education. It is believed that Muska was the first openly gay athletic director in a collegiate setting.
Westboro Baptist Church threatened to protest at the college but once again the tradition of openness and tolerance at Oberlin prevailed as the college stood behind its new athletic director.
The incident drew the attention of ESPN, which included Muska in a segment of its series “Outside the Lines.” Cobb also appeared in the segment along with high school football player and wrestler, Greg Congdon, who received terrible backlash after being outed.
“I appeared in the segment talking with my face blurred out,” Cobb says. “It felt incongruous to appear that way, but my younger brother had not been told yet that I was gay and I didn’t want him to find out on television.”
One thing that hasn’t changed as a result of the LGBT sports movement is the questions that are being asked by the media — the same questions Cobb was asked 17 years ago.
Is there sexual tension? Is there homophobia? What is it like in the locker room?
For Cobb, there was never a problem in the locker room at his own college. He says he did experience stress when the team competed at away meets, but he attributes that more to the heightened feeling of jock culture at the other colleges than to gay stigma.
At the time, the ESPN segment didn’t receive much buzz and there wasn’t the expected ripple effect. The media frenzy over the Michael Sam kiss last year points to how things have changed over the years.
Cobb went on to do his graduate work at Yale and moved to New York City in 2010. Now 35, he is working as a community manager for corporate affairs and is happily competing for the LGBT swim team Team New York Aquatics.
In 2011, he responded to a posting from Dr. Truett Vaigneur who was looking for participants to appear in an educational documentary about how being an athlete forms the identity of a gay man in terms of masculinity and self-esteem.
The resulting film “The University Pool” showcases three former collegiate swimmers who are gay and addresses how their experiences defined them.
“I think my positive college experience actually gave the film a different feel,” Cobb says. “My acceptance at Oberlin points to the power of leadership.”
Following the release of the film, the participants, including LGBT sports leaders Hudson Taylor, Jeff Kagan and Colin Joyner, appeared in panel discussions at universities and were able to interact with current students.
“I consider it to be one of the greatest privileges of my life that I was able to compete in collegiate sports as an openly gay man,” Cobb says. “I am very happy to be a part of the continuing cycle of what it is like to be an open college athlete.”