Is gay coach's dismissal a cautionary tale?

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- When the University of Missouri lacrosse program decided not to renew Kyle Hawkins' contract earlier this month, his friends in the gay coaching community shook their heads. They called Hawkins a "moron," and told him he should have seen the end of his time in Columbia coming.

The thing is, Hawkins hadn't asked for his role as a groundbreaker when he made the decision to come out. He simply placed his personal life ahead of his professional career.

"It was not my intent to lead the way," Hawkins says. "Not my intent to be a flag-bearer, to be a role model. There were people that took me as that. 'Finally, we have an out coach.' Those who are in the closet will look at this and [say], 'This is why you don't come out.'"

In 1975, David Kopay was the first NFL player to come out of the closet, three years after his career ended. Earlier this year, John Amaechi became the first former NBA player to acknowledge he is gay. In between, dozens of gay male athletes, from the professional ranks to colleges to the high school level, have come out.

But what about coaches? There have been very few examples of publicly gay coaches in male team sports at any level. Hawkins, who came out of the closet in June 2006 as he headed into his ninth season at Missouri, was a startling exception.

It is among the last taboos in sports: A gay coach in the towel-snapping, butt-slapping, testosterone-charged environment of the male locker room. Are sports, which arguably are still fertile ground for homophobia, ready for that concept?

Right or wrong, for better or for worse, Hawkins' dismissal from Missouri might be an answer to that question. Not that he ever wanted to serve that function.

"I really don't care," Hawkins says. "It's happening, and people really need to get over themselves."

Hawkins says received some 60 supportive e-mails from gay coaches -- coaches still in the closet -- when he came out. More than half of the people who contacted him were from the college ranks.

In April, three weeks before he was dismissed, Hawkins sat down for ESPN's cameras. That interview can be seen on "SportsCenter" on Sunday night, June 3. Apparently secure in his job at the time, he explained why gay coaches don't come out.

"It's not a safe place," he explained. "They may even be out to their family; but they know for a fact -- or at least they feel like they know for a fact -- that being openly gay in athletics is going to hurt their program, and may be an excuse to have them replaced."

Kyle Hawkins' story

The Kyle Hawkins story is scheduled to air on ESPN on "SportsCenter" on June 3, a week from Sunday night. It features interviews with Hawkins -- before and after he was dismissed by Missouri -- as well as with team members and administrators.

Hawkins came out on Outsports.com, a gay sports Web site. Jim Buzinski, a co-founder of Outsports.com, said Hawkins was "pretty unique."

"When you look for examples," Buzinski said, "it's tough to find them. Kyle's story is fairly significant in that he is one of the first who has taken this step.

"An athlete basically … has only himself to worry about. The coach is responsible for the entire organization. There's a lot more pressure, a lot more potential issues to navigate."

Out of the closet
Three years ago, Hawkins says he learned he had colon cancer. The night before he went to the hospital, he purged his computer and his home of e-mails, photos, letters -- anything that might reveal, upon later examination, that he is gay.

When he returned home after an operation and an encouraging prognosis, it hit him: If he had died, he wouldn't have been around to care what people thought.

"I think it was the low point," Hawkins says. "I wasn't one of those people that was sitting alone with a shotgun, saying, 'I can't face it.' Mine was, 'What kind of idiot are you that you just spent 33 years worrying about other people?'"

When Hawkins attended Arizona State, his roommate was a lacrosse player. That was the extent of his knowledge of the game when he became the coach for a start-up program at Hazelwood Central High School back in his hometown of St. Louis. After four years of progress there, Hawkins made the move two hours west to Columbia when the Missouri job became available.

I wasn't one of those people that was sitting alone with a shotgun, saying, 'I can't face it.' Mine was, 'What kind of idiot are you that you just spent 33 years worrying about other people?'

Kyle Hawkins

He turned the program around; but following the 2004 season, when his Tigers won 18 of 19 games, Hawkins' personal life was a mess. He was a closeted gay man in a gay-unfriendly environment. It was hard for him to imagine that there might be other coaches in the same predicament.

On Sept. 28, 2004, he wrote a 1,500-word anonymous posting on Outsports.com. It was a harrowing, candid account of the specifics of his life. In it, he explained that his brush with cancer had revealed the image of a person he didn't respect:

"I saw a man whose self image was steadily declining because of his inability to come to grips with his sexuality, and whose life was wracked with the fear of being discovered and outed. I saw a man who was alone, and who increasingly isolated himself from friends and family because of his fears of setting off people's 'gaydar.' I saw a man whose serial one-night stands put at risk his health and career, and whose chances of love and a relationship were lessened by each 'hook-up.'"

Hawkins, who asked readers to respond to his "rambling," signed the posting, "Frustrated Coach."

So, who was "Frustrated Coach?"

"Somebody who allowed himself to be put in a prison of fear," Hawkins explains now. "Somebody who was legitimately terrified of the responses of family, church and society, and somebody who felt like he didn't have any realistic choices.

"It just seems like a cliff; it is irreversible. You can't come out, and then [say], 'No, I was just kidding.'"

In October 2004, the internal pressure continued to build. Hawkins called a gay crisis line and was asked by the counselor if he was considering hurting himself.

"I don't know," was Hawkins' answer.

Thirty minutes later, the police were knocking on his door. Hawkins was committed, involuntarily, for a 24-hour suicide watch at Boone County Hospital in Columbia. He was released at 3 p.m. the next day, and says he walked onto the practice field at 3:30, still wearing his hospital bracelet.

Hawkins' biggest fear about coming out was his family's reaction to the news. Two days after the hospital stay, he drove to his parents' home in St. Louis to tell them. They are deeply faithful Southern Baptists. His father is a deacon in the church. His grandfather was a minister, as were both of his mother's grandparents. As a child, Hawkins wasn't allowed to cross the street without a family member, and couldn't visit the home of children who didn't attend the family's church. Games of chance -- even board games with dice -- were discouraged, he says, along with drinking and dancing.

"A lot of people in my family would equate homosexuality with drug use or alcoholism," Hawkins says. "It's a choice that somebody made and they're wallowing in that sin.

"If you can get to the point where you understand that homosexuality is not a choice, then your whole perspective has to change. I mean, it can't be a sin to be left-handed. It can't be a sin to be blond."

After he told his parents, he felt like "1,000 pounds had been taken off my shoulders." Then his mother told him to get out of the house.

Two days later, he says, he received the paperwork that would remove him from the family trust fund. Hawkins hasn't talked to his parents since, a span of more than 2½ years.

Another chance
While the University of Missouri fields teams in Division I football and basketball, among other sports, in the competitive Big 12 Conference, the lacrosse program plays at a club level. The Tigers' schedule features other club teams such as Boston College, Connecticut and Texas, as well as teams such as Big 12 rivals Kansas and Kansas State. Players pay nearly $2,000 per year for the privilege to play.

Because it is a club team, Missouri lacrosse is not part of the school's athletic department. Rather, it is administered by the players themselves and several advisers. A leadership team comprised of club officers and a faculty adviser has the power to hire and fire the coach. After the 2006 season -- the Tigers followed their championship season in 2004 with a 9-9 record in 2005, then went 12-9 -- the players began to express some disappointment in the team's direction, and went so far as to interview prospective replacements for the coach.

According to team president Andy Mackley, a junior midfielder, the coach told him about his homosexuality during those 2006 discussions about the program's direction. Later, Mackley and other team members wondered among themselves if Hawkins had raised the issue of his sexuality in an attempt to save his job.

The University of Missouri has a policy that does not permit discrimination on the basis of, among other things, sexual orientation.

"It definitely crossed my mind," says Mackley, who has known Hawkins since Mackley was in eighth grade and acknowledges that Hawkins is the biggest reason he plays lacrosse. "It's kind of obviously a weird time to come out, after all the times he could have. It was literally the days [just] after he found out we were questioning his coaching ability and whether he was going to come back or not."

In May 2006, Mackley told Hawkins that the club would renew his annual one-year contract, but that he needed to alter his negative coaching style.

Hawkins denies that he came out to save his job. But the players say the fear of being perceived as homophobic was a major factor in their decision to retain him for the 2007 season.

"People would rush to judgment, definitely," Mackley says. "You can go back and look at the Duke lacrosse scandal. People kind of rushed to judgment there, and I didn't want that to happen to our team."

The "Frustrated Coach" posting two years earlier on Outsports.com had created intense speculation about its author. Some readers, scrutinizing the details of the dramatic story, thought he might be a fictional character. In June 2006, Hawkins finally signed his real name to the series of posts.

"I felt relieved," Hawkins says. "I felt a little bit of vindication and a little bit of fear -- vindication towards the people that said I was a fake person, and a little bit of fear because I know there was a lot of people that hoped I was the head football coach at Tennessee or the head basketball coach at Duke. I wasn't the name they were hoping I would be."

Almost immediately, the e-mails of support started coming in.

The typical e-mail, according to Hawkins, began this way: "My name is Joe, and I'm the head coach at fill-in-the-blank."

Words of choice
Once the Missouri lacrosse players learned of Hawkins' sexual orientation, some of them began to reflect on the homophobic remarks they'd often made in the locker room and their effects on their coach.

"I think we went back and like, 'Wow, we said a lot of stuff around him,'" says Blaine Skrainka, a junior attackman. "You know, just calling each other like a fag, a homo, a queer -- just typical slang words that are used in our culture."

The players tried to modify their behavior during the 2006 fall season, but opponents and their fans weren't always as sensitive.

We went back and like, 'Wow, we said a lot of stuff around him.' You know, just calling each other like a fag, a homo, a queer -- just typical slang words . . .

Attackman Blaine Skrainka

"The biggest one is 'fag,'" Hawkins says. "That seems to be the word of choice. Before games, during games, after games. It doesn't happen all the time, [but] it is not uncommon.

"There was one time when a player said it standing next to his coach, and his coach did nothing. That upset me."

On one occasion in a game against Kansas, according to Hawkins, the slur came from an unlikely source: an official.

"Somebody at the [scorer's] table had said, 'Seems like you have two angry coaches there,'" Hawkins says, "and the referee turned around -- who's from Missouri -- and said, 'Yeah, one of them's a Jayhawk and one of them's a faggot, so what do we care?'"

Hawkins complained to the Great Rivers Conference, and the official was suspended for a year.

The recently completed spring season was a disappointment to everyone involved with the team. The Tigers won their opener at Iowa, but then lost five straight games. Their 6-9 record marked the first losing season in Hawkins' nine-year tenure at Missouri. Three weeks ago, the program informed Hawkins that it would not renew his contract.

Among the reasons they gave him: his negative image outside of the school, repetitive practices and player attrition.

"Their complaints," Hawkins says, "were ridiculous."

"That's his opinion," says Karen Mitchell, who is serving as the team's faculty adviser although she won't officially join Missouri's faculty until the fall of 2007. Mitchell voted with the players to oust Hawkins. "He is entitled to his opinion."

The obvious question: Was Hawkins' dismissal in any way tied to his sexual orientation?

Six weeks ago, when he was still Missouri's coach, ESPN asked Hawkins what was at the time a hypothetical question: "Do you think your sexuality will impact your coaching career at some point in the future?"

"No," Hawkins said then. "The only thing that will affect my coaching is the change that has happened in me because I have come out."

When ESPN returned to Columbia and asked it again days after his dismissal, Hawkins' answer wasn't as simple or direct.

"I can't answer that question," he said. "I can only say that the answers they gave me were ridiculous. I can tell you that my questions regarding my termination were not answered sufficiently."

While Hawkins would not say that his sexuality was a factor in his dismissal, he declined to exclude it as a possibility.

"I can't read people's minds," he says, shrugging. "Don't know if I can help you more than that."

Mitchell says she can understand Hawkins' skepticism.

"Being a woman and being African-American, if I were in his place, had done a good job and then [was] released, I would wonder at least in some degree," she says. "Was it because I am a woman? Because I am black?

"No, I don't fault him at all for wondering if it was because he was gay. But I am telling you: It was not."

Before he came out, Hawkins says he worried about the impact his sexuality might have on his team. After the insult from the referee last fall, he wondered whether some officials would be biased against Missouri. None of the 12 players who left the team between the fall of 2006 and the spring of 2007 said they departed because Hawkins is gay, but some of the current players say they can't dismiss it as one of the factors.

And then there is the negative recruiting. According to Hawkins, some opposing coaches used his sexuality in an attempt to persuade players not to attend Missouri.

"Kids that end up coming here tell me what other coaches say," Hawkins says. "[It's] more on the joking side: 'You don't really want to play for a gay guy.'"

After the fallout
It's hard to imagine that the fallout from Hawkins' disclosure about his sexuality didn't play a role in the team's lack of success this season.

He continues to vigorously defend his coaching ability. He points to a career winning percentage of .686 and a dramatic improvement at season's end this spring. The Tigers lost to Illinois 20-5 on April 14, then closed the margin to 13-7 in a first-round Great Rivers Conference playoff loss two weeks later.

The team's complaints seem to focus on his style of coaching more than the substance.

"There has been negative recruiting before he came out, because of his personality," Mackley says. "He might not be liked by a lot of people. People think he's an a------. That's where I think the negative recruiting came from."

Mackley still worries, though, that the team will be widely viewed as homophobic in the wake of Hawkins' dismissal.

"Being unfair about his sexuality, that just pisses me off, you know?" Mackley says. "That those questions do come up … it sucks. I wish they didn't."

Cyd Zeigler Jr., a co-founder of Outsports.com, believes Hawkins' story will have a negative impact on other gay coaches' coming out of the closet, although he says he doesn't think Hawkins' sexual orientation was an important factor in the decision to let him go.

"If it was a factor, it was probably No. 10 out of 10," says Zeigler, who has known Hawkins for more than three years. "That's just my sense. This is a bunch of 20-year-old kids that won't be on the team in two years. They have a faculty adviser [Mitchell] who never played lacrosse and, technically, isn't even on the faculty.

"I just don't think his sexuality had much to do with it."

Hawkins says both he and the team have consulted with attorneys, but he has no plans to sue the school. He wants to move on. He wants to coach lacrosse.

"If it wasn't me, it would be somebody else," Hawkins says. "I mean, we're everywhere. That's why I said over and over to people who bring up things about openly gay people in athletics, 'You already showered with a gay person -- you just don't know it.'"

Hawkins says he's been offered the University of Kansas job -- he is leaning against taking it because it would mean competing in the same conference -- and there is interest from the University of Iowa. More intriguing, he says, are a number of openings in Division III and high schools, some that come with full-time teaching positions. The option he is investigating most aggressively is an opening for a development coach with the English Lacrosse Association.

Hawkins, who is in a committed relationship, says he and his partner will make the decision together.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com