Tressel doesn’t duck issue of gays in sports

Follow Dan Wetzel on Twitter at @DanWetzel

Jim Tressel is as conservative as his sweater vest. He’s a devout Christian who wrote a book about faith and leadership. He boasts a personality that, at least publicly, is more gray than scarlet; a multimillionaire who still mows his own lawn.

The buttoned-down Ohio State coach just took part in what is apparently a major college football first. He exchanged emails last month with Outlook Columbus magazine, the initial interview a big-time coach has done with a publication that serves the gay community.

Yes, Senator Sweater Vest is a progressive pioneer.

“We strive to teach and model appreciation for everybody,” Tressel wrote to Outlook. “… If we appreciate each other, then we have a chance for something great.”

There’s no independent verification of Outlook Columbus’ claim that Tressel is the first to give such an interview. There’s no way to know if another coach has ever been approached for an interview by such a publication.

It doesn’t matter. That Tressel answered questions at all from a magazine that bills itself as “a lifestyle and advocacy publication” for the local gay community is enough.

“It’s significant; he is a leader,” said Jim Buzinski, founder of OutSports.com, a Los Angeles-based website designed to serve the gay sports community nationally.

Competitive athletics is one of the last bastions of accepted homophobia. Even the military is considering a repeal of its “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. In sports, it’s still just “Don’t Dare Say A Word.”

So no one does.

There were more than 10,000 men playing major college football last season. Not one of them was publicly open about being gay. It was the same the season before and the season before and the season before. There were also no openly gay athletes in the NFL, NBA, NHL or Major League Baseball either.

Some of these players were, indeed, homosexual. They just had to shut up and hide it.

Why are there so few openly gay athletes, the magazine asked Tressel.

“What we have, quite often, with our athletes, and with a number of young people in any sport, is that from the time they were 6 or 7 years old, their identity has been through sports,” Tressel wrote back. “You’re the tallest, you’re the fastest, you’re the best player. All their feedback has come in terms of their role as a player, and they are often hesitant to go beyond that narrow role.

“An opportunity and a real challenge we have when they get to college is to get them to see themselves with a broader lens. … We want our guys to define themselves in terms of who they are and not simply ‘what they do’ with a certain block of their time. …

“The greatest achievement we can have as coaches is that a young man leaves us with a concept of who he is, what he wants from life, and what he can share with others – someone who is ‘comfortable in his own skin,’ and that identity can go in a number of directions.”

What would the reaction be to an openly gay Buckeye player, he was asked.

“One, we are a family. If you haven’t learned from your family at home that people have differences and those strengthen the whole, then you are hopefully going to learn it as part of the Ohio State football family,” Tressel wrote.

“Two, every part of our team is important and every role has value – no job is too small and no person is irrelevant – that’s a great lesson that transcends into society. When I think of the diversity we’ve had on our team the past few years, it goes way beyond just a racial, sexual or ethnic mix. We’ve had players who had different religions, players who came from different economic backgrounds, players who are parents, who are spouses, who are caring for ailing parents, who are wheelchair bound, who are battling cancer, and on and on.

“Whatever a young man feels called to express, I hope we will help him do it in a supportive environment. Everybody is important, and maturity is learning to find and appreciate those differences in others.”

Tressel doesn’t do many sit-down interviews (he declined, through the university, any further comment). He does get flooded with requests, though; everything from Boy Scout newsletters to local newspapers. The only thing he never turns down is political groups trying to pass municipal bonds that aid education in Ohio. He’s always in favor.

Ohio State football media relations director Shelley Poe encourages emailed questions from various groups which she prints out and hands over to Tressel. He answers what he can. In this case, he did it over the course of recruiting in January. He treated Outlook Columbus like anyone else seeking comments on leadership, she said. It wasn’t like he’s out looking for a new cause to support.

His answers were typical Tressel. There’s nothing particularly colorful or bold. It wasn’t like he was advocating for the legalization of gay marriage.

His opinions were deep on substance though. They carried a measure of thoughtfulness. Tressel did more than enough. The message was in the messenger.

“It would have been easy for him to beg off the interview, claiming he was busy with recruiting, but his answers show a great deal of thought and introspection, and were much more expansive than I would have thought,” Buzinski said.

Buzinski said the reaction among his community has been overwhelmingly positive, Tressel gaining new fans overnight. “What’s a gay Wolverine fan to do?” Buzinski joked.

There are countless gay athletes who quit team sports, particularly football, early on rather than deal with the bigoted culture of the locker room, the slurs that flow from coaches in practice or the fear of being found out. The issue is even more pronounced at the high school and youth levels, when kids are more emotionally vulnerable. Who knows, Buzinski said, maybe this gets other prominent coaches to speak out or gets the dialogue going or gets a prep coach to reconsider his language.

Tressel’s interview isn’t going to bring football out of the dark ages. Not even the open mindedness of a guy who’s won five consecutive Big Ten titles can reverse things overnight. Sports is decades behind society. Football may be even decades behind that.

It did just take a small step in the proper direction thanks to a coach who might be the most conservative in the game.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Mar 8, 2010