Thirty-some years ago when I was an assistant high school wrestling coach in Alaska, I knew of only one other openly gay high school coach in the world. I was out, but seldom engaged in any professional discussions that touched on sexual orientation or sports inclusivity.
So it was with a personal point of pride and progress that I took note this month when Equality Coaching Alliance, a network initiative I launched less than four years ago in 2011, got its 200th member – and now its 201st and 202nd.
When I started it, I could not name more than half a dozen openly gay or lesbian coaches. Now this. Such is the power of social media.
ECA allows LGBT coaches and their supporters, whether out or closeted, to connect with each other through a private group Facebook page, where a lively discussion thread lives. (ECA has another Facebook page accessible to the general public.) We share each other’s successes and challenges, we discuss the state of sports and ways to make it better, we discuss best practices and ways to deal with parental and administrative relationships, and exchange congratulations and sympathies.
“ECA serves an important need in connecting LGBT coaches in all stages of being truly out,” member Helen Carroll, former basketball coach and current sports project director at National Center for Lesbian Rights, told the Bay Area Reporter. “The coaches that are living as out are able to provide support and advice to those trying to navigate that part of their life. ECA also fosters a sense of community within a group of sports people that often feel alone in navigating a still homophobic/biphobic/transphobic sports world. As the numbers grow into the hundreds, this organization will be a powerful influence on inclusive sports culture for all.”
Two years ago, Saunders High School basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo in Yonkers, New York was struggling with the question of coming out. He got advice and encouragement from fellow ECA members, attended the LGBT Sports Coalition summit, of which ECA is a member, and took the plunge. Not only has he been able to enjoy life more freely since then, his teams have had continued success, and this month the Lower Hudson Basketball Coaches Association named him co-coach of the year.
“ECA was an integral part of my coming out process,” Nicodemo said. “Knowing that kind of support existed allowed me to take a life-changing step. Eighteen months later, and in the midst of the most successful season of my career, I still rely on the group for feedback.”
The membership of ECA has been evenly split between men and women throughout its growth, and the members represent a wide variety of recreational, high school, and college programs, with a scattering of professional sports representatives, such as Major League Baseball’s Billy Bean. There are about half-dozen transgender members, and roughly 10 percent of the members are persons of color.
I started ECA in 2011 because during my volunteer work for the Federation of Gay Games, I noticed there were support organizations aimed specifically at athletes, but none for coaches. It seemed that not only did coaches represent a less transient population than athletes, they were in critical positions to help create permanent cultural change in their programs that would benefit generations of athletes.
Through the magic of the Internet, email, and phone calls, coaches who have never met have been able to reach out for friendship and advice. Consider for example, Charley Sullivan, a rowing coach at Michigan who was the first out men’s coach in NCAA Division I, and Micah Porter, a more recently and quietly out high school track and field coach in Colorado.
“What has struck me as most valuable about ECA is the casual peer sharing and mentoring that is happening in the group,” Sullivan said. “I haven’t actually met Micah Porter in person yet. But he is from the same town as the head coach I work for, and they overlapped a bit in high school. So he’s a Michigan guy, and there are some personal connections that go beyond ECA.
“He and Anthony Nicodemo are also out there on the high school level in a way that, even though I was out as a coach when I coached in high school, I wasn’t,” Sullivan continued. “Simply because there was no OutSports, there was no Huffington Post, there was no Facebook. But with each of them, at various times, more senior coaches have been able to help them puzzle through the elements of being a publicly gay figure: what to do about name calling, how to handle parents who were upset by some way in which kids on the team were connected to the public outness. I can also just imagine some of the other coaches, sitting there in the group, not yet out, but considering it, reading these discussions and knowing that there are people who will have their backs.”
Far and away, the more successful “recruiter” for ECA has been Kirk Walker, assistant softball coach at UCLA. It seems not a week goes by without Walker adding another coach to the group.
“ECA is powerful in that it allows individuals that often feel isolated to have a sense of community,” he said. “The LGBT community does not always feel welcoming to those in sports competitively and the outlet to network and discuss issues in sport as they relate to LGBT or equity issues is enticing to coaches. When I introduce the group to coaches and sports people, they are extremely eager to join so they can meet other people.”
Walker said he has noticed an impact on members’ lives.
“I know most of the coaches I have added over the past two years have found greater confidence to be a more visible and active role model and mentor to their athletes and peers,” he said. “It has been very rewarding to watch young closeted coaches find their footing in ECA even without ever meeting another member in person. There are hundreds and hundreds of active coaches in college and high school alone that would benefit immediately from connecting on ECA with others in sport.”
Walker recently issued a recruitment challenge to the fellow coaches to double the membership. ECA remains very informal – it has no funding, no officers, no website and no nonprofit status – but the sense of “team” is quite apparent.
“We’re still at a number where community is happening this way,” Sullivan said. “I’m beginning to wonder what it would look like for us to have some sort of summer ‘camp’ where we could join together, not in any particularly regimented or overly programmed way, but just to hear from each other about how we coach, to get to know each other face to face without the rest of the coalition being there, to learn from each other about so many things. I think it would be powerful.”