Dec 12 6:00 AM

For gay high-school coaches, coming out is a game of chance

Coach Anthony Nicodemo, middle, goes over the goals of the first practice with the men's basketball team at Saunders Trades and Technical High School in Yonkers, N.Y., last month.
Timothy Bella for Al Jazeera America

YONKERS, N.Y. — Anthony Nicodemo is peeved. The head coach of the boys’ basketball team at Saunders Trades and Technical High School can’t believe what he’s just heard inside the school’s run-down weight room.

“A 67 in U.S. history?” he says. “I hate it when someone is failing history. I teach history.”

Nicodemo walks into the locker room, where a player is eating a slice of pizza. It’s the last thing the coach wants to see members of his team eating 12 minutes before practice. He’s still peeved: “Find a way to eat something else.”

It’s the first official practice day of the season for Nicodemo’s Blue Devils, and he’s all business. “We don’t have a lot of time,” he tells the players as they head to the court. “No B.S. Let’s get out there and get it done.”

Nicodemo, 35, is a 17-year veteran of coaching. He’s bald with a beard and has an intense but supportive manner. Yet in one important way, he’s not like most coaches. This summer, Nicodemo told his players something about himself that he’s kept private for 15 years: He is gay.

Nicodemo is believed to be the first openly gay boys’ high-school basketball coach in the New York City metropolitan area and is one of just a handful of gay high-school coaches who’ve gone public with their sexual orientation.

His first season since coming out tips off Saturday. School administrators, parents and students have been supportive of his announcement. Nationally, however, gay high-school coaches have met mixed reactions. Some have lost their jobs, subsequently accusing their schools of firing them for their sexual orientation. Coaches and administrators interviewed for this article say there’s growing acceptance among students but that school administrators and parents often remain uncomfortable with the idea of an openly gay coach working with adolescents.

“The climate is all over the place,” says Vikki Krane, director of women’s studies at Bowling Green University and co-author of a 2005 study on the impact of sexual orientation on amateur coaching. “There are places where openly gay and lesbian coaches are completely supported and places where they’re scared to death to lose their jobs.”

The talk in room 104b

Nicodemo was working as a social studies teacher in a nearby school district when he was hired by Saunders to head the boys’ basketball team. During the previous 20 years, Saunders was known as a “cellar dweller” among local basketball programs and had won just a handful of games in a couple of years before Nicodemo arrived, a record that had caused him to hesitate about taking the job.

He overcame his qualms, though, and would go on to turn around the team. Saunders now has a 23-15 record and has made two playoff appearances in the last two years.

Still, Nicodemo didn’t think seriously about coming out publicly until this April, when veteran NBA center Jason Collins did so in an interview to Sports Illustrated. Collins became one of the first active professional athletes to come out — and the first in one of the four major professional team sports in the U.S. Nicodemo decided to use the news to initiate a conversation with his team. His players told him they would welcome a gay player.

“If I asked the players to talk about Robbie Rogers or Johnny Weir” — a professional soccer player and an Olympic figure skater who have each come out — “that gap is too big. But a professional basketball player who guarded Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard? They understood that,” Nicodemo said. “Jason (Collins) opened the door.”

After returning from the Nike LGBT Sports Summit, Nicodemo says he felt he couldn't hide his sexual orientation from his team any longer.
America Tonight

It wasn’t until June, though, after Nicodemo attended the Nike LGBT Sports Summit, an annual gathering in support of LGBT equality on the athletic field, that he started coming out to school administrators and former players. His colleagues were very supportive so, on June 24, Nicodemo gathered his team in room 104b for a second conversation.

“I mean this from the bottom of my heart that this is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” he told his team. “But I am a gay high-school basketball coach.”

Erwin Mullins, a senior and team captain, says some players were surprised.

“We thought, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’” Mullins recalls. “At first, we were all a little shocked. And then it was like ‘OK, cool. Now what?’ Nothing changed. To us, he’s still the same guy.”

Later in the night, a couple of the players would take to Twitter to express support for their coach. 

The reception for Nicodemo’s announcement “proves that his sexual orientation has zero to do with his ability as a coach,” says Wade Davis, executive director of the You Can Play Project, which promotes LGBT equality in sports. But, Davis adds, there are still significant risks in coming out.

Currently, just 21 states and the District of Columbia have laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation; New York is among them. The Employee Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit employers from discriminating in hiring and employing based on sexual orientation or gender identity, has stalled in Congress since it was first proposed in 1994. House Speaker John Boehner has openly opposed the legislation, saying that ENDA would cost people jobs and cause a spike in wrongful termination lawsuits.

“ENDA would protect young coaches,” says Micah Porter, head coach of the boys’ track and cross-country teams at Denver’s D’Evelyn High School, who came out in September and says that his decorated 18-year career at the school played a role in helping him keep his job. “There’s a lot of trepidation for young coaches to come out without that proof of success that I had when I came out.”

Meanwhile, the experiences of gay coaches who’ve lost their jobs suggests there may be valid reasons for remaining in the closet. In 2011, Nikki Williams was dismissed as assistant volleyball coach at Life School in Waxahachie, Texas, allegedly because her partner started attending the team’s games. An administrator at the school denied that Williams was fired for being gay, but declined to elaborate further, citing privacy concerns. In October, Tippi McCullough was notified on her wedding day that she would be fired as girls’ basketball coach at Mount St. Mary Academy, a private school in Little Rock, Ark. According to the Human Rights Campaign, which first brought McCullough’s dismissal to light, the school said it was terminating her employment because her marriage to a woman was against church doctrine. In an October statement, Karen Flake, the school’s president, said: “Given that we are a Catholic school, we adhere to the teachings of the Catholic Church and have a responsibility to provide a solid Catholic formation for our students.”

"There’s a lot of trepidation for young coaches to come out without that proof of success that I had when I came out.”

Micah Porter

High school coach, D'Evelyn High School (Denver)

Gay college coaches have also faced incidents of discrimination. Lisa Howe was fired as women’s soccer coach at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., in December 2010 after announcing that she and her partner were expecting their first child. “We expect people to commit themselves to high moral and ethical standards within a Christian context,” Marty Dickens, chairman of the university’s board of trustees, told The Tennessean newspaper after the dismissal. “We do adhere to our values as Christ-centered, and we don’t want to make apologies for that.”

Last year, Virginia Commonwealth University chose to not renew the contract of its volleyball coach, James Finley, following a 25-6 season. Finley said it was because he is gay; VCU blamed it on the players’ academic performances.

Searching for answers

Burke Wallace is still teaching in Northern California, but he isn’t coaching anymore. Wallace says he lost his jobs coaching football at two different schools because of his sexual orientation.

In 2008, Wallace says, he was harassed and fired as defensive coordinator at Bradshaw Christian School in Sacramento, Calif., because of his sexual orientation. (Bradshaw did not respond to requests for comment.) While federal law prohibits harassment or discrimination against an employee in the workplace for his or her sexual orientation, there are exemptions for religious institutions. In 2012, Wallace moved to Livermore Charter Prep School, a public school in Oakland, which meant he would be afforded greater legal protection.

Wallace, who founded the school’s gay-straight alliance club, says it was an open secret, at least among students, that he was gay. He says he felt that students were comfortable with that information.

But Wallace got the sense, he says, that some of the school’s administrators were not. He would hear through colleagues about the athletic director and other members of the administration saying “how it was a bad idea having a gay football coach.” Last spring, Wallace was fired as football coach and subsequently left his post as chair of the English department.

In November, Wallace filed suit against the school. Derek Austin, an attorney for Tri-Valley Learning Corporation, the nonprofit that oversees Livermore, said in a phone interview that he hasn’t yet received the legal complaint from Wallace and cannot comment until he does.

Wallace now works at another school in the area. His new school doesn’t have a football team, and for now he’s OK with that.

“I think it’s going to take me a couple years before I feel comfortable venturing back into coaching,” Wallace says. “I don’t want to be known as a gay coach. I want to be known as a coach who is judged on ability.”

Nicodemo has heard Wallace’s story and says that as encouraging as his own experience may be to those who support LGBT equality, Wallace’s story may offer deeper truth.

“(Wallace’s) story, unfortunately — that’s going to lead another thousand people to say, ‘That’s why I’m not coming out,’” Nicodemo says. “That’s the kind of stuff that kept me in the closet for all those years. I was petrified.”

'It's all eyes on you'

As Saunders' season tips off Saturday, Nicodemo wants any kind of incident involving his sexual orientation to be handled by him instead of his players.
Timothy Bella for Al Jazeera America

On a November day at Saunders, the players are preparing for their first game of the season. Nicodemo’s practices are planned down to the minute: 10 minutes of shot-fake drills, 10 minutes of passing, 10 minutes of shooting. In the back of the gym, a group of girls hanging around after their own basketball practice are talking loud enough for Nicodemo’s head to snap back in the middle of one of his talks to the team.

“Ladies!” he yells. “Stai zitto! It means shut up in Italian. Thank you!”

Practice is almost over, but Nicodemo doesn’t like the effort he’s seen so far from the 19 players on the floor.

“Remember, there’s been no goddamn decision on who is in the top 13 yet,” he says, referring to the number of Blue Devils who will suit up for Saturday’s game. “You’re fighting for your lives.”

The players have been preparing mentally as well as physically for the season. Derrick Felder, a sophomore guard, says he and his teammates anticipate a few uncomfortable moments in response to their coach’s news earlier in the year. Nicodemo has asked his players to let him handle any anti-gay trash talking or heckling that might arise on the court. In pick-up games over the summer against local players, his team got a taste of what they can expect.

“Some people have told us, ‘Oh, you guys don’t belong here, because your coach is this and that,’” says Felder. “Our reaction was ‘We don’t care. We’re here to play basketball. If it’s still a problem, we’ll leave. If not, let’s play.’”

Nicodemo says he recognizes that, at least at first, he might be looked at as a gay coach instead of a coach who happens to be gay. But he hopes that will eventually change.

“When you walk into the gym, it’s all eyes on you, especially for that first game,” he says. “But when the (national) anthem is done and the ball is up, it’s all about the kids.”

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