Publicly, coaches and players reacted with unanimous support for Derrick Gordon
(above). How will crowds react next season? (Guillermo Hernandez/SI)
Some time next winter, Massachusetts will visit Fordham and Rose Hill Gymnasium will open its doors to college basketball's first openly gay male player. Derrick Gordon will be a junior guard for UMass and will be months removed from Wednesday's public declaration of his sexuality. The initial tremors accompanying the news will have subsided. He might seem like just another guy. And Fordham coach Tom Pecora, like many other coaches and administrators, believes that's how Gordon's peers will treat him. But Pecora also vowed to act if he’s proven wrong.
“Our responsibility as people and coaches in the world of college athletics is obviously to support him in any way we can,” Pecora said. “I can't imagine here at Fordham there being an issue with a person in the stands and certainly not with a player on our team. But if there was, I'd go into the stands on behalf of the kid. That's gotta be the mindset. It's important for that young man to know people have his back.”
The reaction to Gordon's announcement, which the 33-game starter made via ESPN and OutSports early Wednesday, suggested that would be the outcome. There was a pervasive belief that college students, basketball players included, are accepting – that it's almost remarkable how little of an issue this will be. While coaches, especially in the Atlantic 10, expected to address the news with their teams, they also guessed their players would judge Gordon by his jump shot and defense and not by any other standard. He was a player on the scouting report this past season and would be again next season, and little more.
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The only concern is about the unpredictable nature of crowds, but coaches and administrators are optimistic still. “I guess we'll be the first ones to find out and maybe be able to tell some others at some point what to expect and how to deal with it,” Massachusetts coach Derek Kellogg said in a phone interview. “While people think it may be hostile and people are going to say some vulgarity and how it might be, I also think we may have some people who respect who we are and how we do things. There could be a lot of different things that we'll have to address as they come, if they actually come. We talked about people and kids being a little more astute than they once were – I'm hoping that's the case.”
It’s anticipated to be the case on the court for Gordon, who averaged 9.4 points and 3.5 rebounds last season.
“The ball goes up – I know our guys are like this – guys don't think about color, orientation, creed, any of that stuff,” Towson coach Pat Skerry said. “They think it's time to compete, and how are we going to win the game?”
Most programs, like Skerry's, will observe Gordon's experience from afar. But A-10 programs will definitely cross his path, and coaches in the league expected their players to be open-minded.
Saint Louis coach Jim Crews was driving from Indiana back to campus when he was informed about Gordon's announcement, and his initial reaction basically paralleled his trek through an uninspiring Midwest landscape: Just keep moving along, nothing to see here.
He did not anticipate a different reaction from his players. “I'd be very disappointed if people feel (negatively),” Crews said. “Our whole program is built in terms of respecting people -- the men or women serving you the food, someone opening the door, someone you play. It doesn't have anything to do with job title or record or what the name on your chest is.”
St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli added, half-jokingly, that the self-absorption of college-age athletes means they don’t worry about what anyone else does.
“One of the beauties of the 'me' generation, and that's really who we're coaching -- kids today are very accepting,” Martelli said. “Derrick Gordon, by his opponents and certainly his opponents at St. Joseph's, will be seen as a really solid basketball player.”
There was no ripple even at a stoutly Catholic university like Notre Dame, where men's tennis player Matt Dooley publicly came out as gay in early March. He had previously disclosed his sexuality to teammates, starting with Greg Andrews, and they accepted him instantly.
That bled out into the student body, and there has been no perceptible backlash even on a largely conservative campus. “Our kids responded exactly like I would have expected them to,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “It was very much, ‘Hey, great, doesn't have any impact, you're still our good friend.’ I don't want to minimize it -- for this young man, it's a big deal. It's a very significant deal in his life. But the reaction among teams, at least the majority of student-athletes I work with, you can count on it as being a sort of 'So what?'”
The reaction from the public is a different matter, or at least a less predictable one. To Swarbrick, that is the one element yet to play out. Gordon will have to face high-level, high-intensity college environments.
So while optimism reigns, caution will, too. Schools will assume responsibility to ensure their supporters do not cross lines. “We'll talk about it here at St. Joseph's,” Martelli said. “We will not leave it to chance.” VCU athletic director Ed McLaughlin didn't have the shape of his plan in mind only hours after Gordon's story went public. But he also anticipated getting a message of tolerance out to the student body via social media platforms, as well as meeting with the leaders of the Rams' student section to reiterate what is acceptable and what is not.
“We're not going to attack people for who they are,” McLaughlin said. “I think you have to be hands-on with it, I really do. You have to say something to remind people and not let it go and assume. And we plan on doing that.”
When Gordon first announced to teammates that he was gay, there wasn’t a big reaction in the room. Most of the Minutemen, according to Kellogg, suspected as much. And even if they hadn't, they didn't care. If they were frustrated, it was because they felt Gordon pulling away from them last season when they wanted to bring him in even closer. They just wanted their teammate back.
Derrick Gordon was one of them, just a basketball player. There was optimism Wednesday that everyone else would feel the same.
“We just care if he can go left or right,” Crews said. “We gotta block him out. That's all we care about.”
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