Muska: More honesty needed

Outside the Lines

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Mike Muska knows there are other people in sports who are gay.
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Mike Muska is in a category that's even more rare than openly gay athletes -- openly gay officials. Named this year as athletic director at Oberlin College, an NCAA Division III school in Ohio, he is the only administrator at that level in college sports who has declared his homosexuality.

A former track and field coach at Auburn and Northwestern, Muska was twice named Southeastern Conference coach of the year and has helped 20 athletes reach All-America honors. He later moved to Brown University, where he publicly disclosed his homosexuality.

As part of the Outside the Lines series on gays and homophobia in sports, Muska took questions in a chat session about his experience and those of other gay athletes and officials. Below is an edited transcript:

Moderator Tom Farrey: Hello, everyone. Any questions for Mike?

Seminole94: I'm gay and a coach. How do you handle the situation when a player would confide in you that he might be gay? I've never had this happen, but I've tried to figure out what I would do in the situation.

Michael Muska: What probably is important is creating a safety zone for that student-athlete, or even that coach, so they can feel that there's a safe environment to share and discuss those kinds of issues.

Some of it also is what kind of climate a director sets in a department. In other words, a situation where a coach can feel supported by a director and a student-athlete supported by their coach. That's something we certainly try to do here at Oberlin.

Milda: I'm an Oberlin grad and am so glad that you are part of this discussion. What is your answer to one of the questions on the ESPN site -- on the relative percentage of gays in sports to gays in society?

Michael Muska: I guess I don't know why it would be any different than what it is in society. And I see sports as just a microcosm of other parts of society. What's perhaps different is athletes don't feel as safe as other people in other professions, in terms of their ability to be "out."

Captain: What's the biggest misconception of a gay male athlete?

Michael Muska: That a gay male athlete can't be as tough as a straight male athlete. There's a perception that being gay is being weak, and I think it's absolutely the opposite. I think being gay can make someone that much tougher, in terms of dealing with situations. We've had to deal with so many other things in our lives beyond the athletic arena.

Bubbua: Have any of your students ever confided in you about their sexuality? Just wondering if you feel like you're somewhat of a role model among the gay community in sports.

Michael Muska: Yes, actually we have a number of other students here who have talked to me about their sexuality, and it's created an environment where they feel safe.

In some ways, I feel a little bit like a role model. One of my concerns about this issue is that many of the spokespeople are those who come out after they were in sports, as opposed to when they were in it. It's important for student-athletes to see that perhaps there is a future in athletics for them, whether they are gay or not.

Corey: I'm a 25-year-old grad that is gay, but still closeted. I was in sports throughout my childhood, including a two-sport athlete in college. Can you talk about some of your experiences in that environment? It was rough at times, but I never encountered gay-bashing.

Michael Muska: You must have been fortunate to be where you were in college, because I know lots of gay athletes who did not have a positive experiences that way. It might be important, however, as you become more important yourself, to share your experiences with people at the college to make them even more sensitive to the reality that there are gay student-athletes in their programs.

Dave: Have you ever had athletes in any of your programs who did not accept your sexual orientation?

Michael Muska: In my earlier days of college coaching, I was not out, and actually got out of athletics for a period of time while I wrestled with my own sexuality. Oberlin provided me with an opportunity where now, being at a comfortable level with this, I could go back to doing what I was doing. There's little doubt in my mind that athletes I coached probably would have had problems with this whole issue, particularly at a school like Auburn.

Eddie: How do you feel about how the gay male athlete is being treated in today's sports, and do you have any advice for those males who may happen to be gay?

Michael Muska: It still goes back to a leadership role being taken so that student-athletes, and even pro athletes, can feel safe in the environment they're in. I don't think gay athletes are getting attention because so few are out, particularly on the male side. It seems to be much more of a media issue in women's athletics, while many in male athletics would like to believe that we're not there.

Cardinal: I think homophobia is a primarily male phenomenon when it comes to athletics. Do you agree or disagree?

Michael Muska: I agree that it's a bigger issue in male athletics, and for many people being gay as a female athlete might even be seen as a sign of strength or masculinity -- whereas on the male side it can be perceived as weakness or femininity, something an opponent might see as a chance to create an advantage by. I think even the show tonight is a good illustration of how much more difficult it was to find male participants to discuss this issue.

John: I just have one question. Why are you gay?

Michael Muska: I believe it's not a choice. It's something that I always realized, but fought for many years, particularly because of my love of athletics. I was always afraid that if someone found out I would be ostracized from that which I love.

Orlando22: Is there any established support network that allows a student-athlete to reveal his/her sexuality?

Michael Muska: I don't know of any. It's interesting to me that in many other fields and professions, and even companies and schools, there are established groups to support individuals in respect to sexual orientation. But athletics remains, in many ways, the final closet.

Moderator Tom Farrey: Have you experienced any adverse reactions to you being gay and an A.D.?

Michael Muska: In many ways, the reactions have been just the opposite. There have been a couple other coaches and administrators who have felt uncomfortable in their environments -- in other words, they are gay coaches and administrators who haven't come out yet -- and have said, "Way to go." In fact, at the panel I did this summer in Provincetown, Mass., for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force with Billie Jean King, a number of coaches and administrators said this directly to me.

The reality is, of course, in every school and situation, there are going to be some people uncomfortable with this issue, but I'd like to think that Oberlin is a place that is a little more open-minded than other places. They've been incredibly supportive since I've arrived.

Jerry: I was wondering how you would deal with the following situation -- you had a openly gay athlete on the team, and the rest of the team refused to dress in the same locker room with that athlete.

Michael Muska: It would be an excellent teaching moment, and a situation in which you could sit down and talk to the team about what the reasons were relative to those concerns. It might help many of them address their own personal issues of sexual discomfort, moreso than homophobia, and hopefully eliminate many of the myths that might surround being gay.

A few years ago, a straight ally and I were talking about the locker-room situation and whether gays might be looking at straights. He said my answer should be, "Don't flatter yourself, guys."

Back to the myths, in many cases a gay male has been probably made so uncomfortable that the last thing they're going to do is look at someone or have any type of discussion about this with teammates. For most gay male athletes, that's their biggest fear -- of discovery.

Orlando22: Do you feel your being openly gay draws more in-the-closet gays to your athletic teams?

Michael Muska: Having just arrived here, it's a non-issue. I think what's more important is that all of our athletes, in all of our programs, feel safe and protected, whether gay or straight, black or white, male or female. If we can create that environment and that attracts more gay athletes here, and it makes our programs better, all the better.

MDguy: In a previous question, you said there aren't really any established support groups. Has there been any move to do so? Are coaches of teams opposed to the idea?

Michael Muska: The reason is there are so few "out" gay leaders, either coaches or administrators, to take an intiative on this issue, especially on the male side. I know that at last year's NCAA Final Four for women in basketball, there was a discussion for this issue at the convention. It's never been an issue of discussion on the men's side. They believe it's not their issue, that there's no gay athletes out there -- which we all know is false. It's an unwillingness to address the issue.

Bubba: I wouldn't ask you to name names, but are you aware of any major college or pro gay athletes? I'm talking big names.

Michael Muska: When I was interviewed by ESPN, we had a long discussion about the concept of outing. And the answer is, yes, they know of and I know of people, but the bottom line is, we have to respect the privacy of each individual and their own timeline of when they are comfortable discussing this issue. Unfortunately for any pro athlete, it probably will come after their career.

Buffman: Do you feel that by admitting you're gay that it could or has cost you more prestigious job opportunities?

Michael Muska: It's prevented me from pursuing certain jobs, because I've realized those would not be environments where I would not be comfortable being who I am. I do not want to work in an environment where I do not feel safe or supported. So yes, I'm sure it's cost me other jobs, if I decided to pursue them. The issue would have been whether or not to be "out" in the job search, which is something -- staying in the closet -- that I am no longer willing to do.

David Morrill: If you had a list of gay issues that must be addressed, what would be on top of that list?

Michael Muska: Probably two:

Making sure that all our students feel safe, and the group that probably feels least safe now is the gay male athlete.

And the real desire that some others out there will be brave and willing enough to come out so that the gay, young student-athletes out there today will have other role models to look up to.

I'm leaving now, but in conclusion, I'd like to say I think it's great ESPN is doing this. It's been an issue that hasn't been addressed well enough. The more dialogue we have about this will create an environment where more can feel safe about coming out and discussing this in the years ahead.


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