By MARC WEISZER
Seven years before NBA player Jason Collins made news as the first active male professional athlete in a major team sport to reveal publicly he was gay, Joey Fisher’s teammates learned about his sexual orientation.
The goalie on Georgia’s club ice hockey team first told a couple of members of the squad personally and then made an update on his Facebook page that indicated he was gay. Then he went to talk to his coach about it.
“It’s kind of unreal how different it is and how much easier it is,” Fisher said. “It certainly is difficult on an individual level, but on a societal level, we’ve seen a sea change of acceptance. … It’s absolutely getting easier every day.”
Fisher waited until his junior season to come out to the team because he said he didn’t know how his coaches or the players would react and didn’t want to risk how it might impact his playing time, but felt by then he had enough standing with the team.
“They knew me as an individual,” said Fisher, who until recently was a UGA systems administrator and who now works for a web-based company in San Antonio. “They didn’t know me as the gay guy. They knew me as Joey.”
It turned out the Georgia Ice Dogs were “100 percent supportive, which I was really kind of shocked about because the world of athletics is probably a little behind the gay rights movement.”
Fisher came out publicly to the website Outsports back in 2007 and took part in a panel discussion in Atlanta on gays in sports.
Hockey is not one of the 21 intercollegiate sports teams sponsored by the Georgia Athletic Association, but current and former UGA scholarship players said in interviews that gay teammates would be or are already accepted.
“Right now, no one is open about it, but the thing is we have to make that a non-issue,” junior wide receiver Chris Conley said of the football program. “People need to be comfortable with being who they are, whether black, white, straight or gay. If that issue does present itself, I hope that our guys are accepting.”
There are 650 student-athletes at Georgia. None are out publicly, including in the most visible sports, but there are some that are open about their sexual orientation within their team.
“There’s not a coach in the country who hasn’t had gay athletes at one point and time,” said longtime Georgia swim coach Jack Bauerle, who has guided the Bulldogs’ women’s team to five national titles, including in 2013. “I’m certainly aware of it. I love coaching kids. It does not make a difference to me one iota. I just like kids that are dedicated to the sport and going to school.”
Meredith Mitchell, who finished her career on Georgia’s women’s basketball team in 2012 and is now in graduate school, said having a lesbian teammate is “just not a big deal,” in her sport.
“Not to speak specifically about the Georgia team, but in women’s basketball as a sport, I feel like it’s widely accepted,” Mitchell said.
She said teammates who put in preseason conditioning, workouts, practices and games become united no matter their differences.
“It’s not really about what their sexual orientation is or about judging them or whatever,” she said. “It’s more about being a teammate and accepting them as who they are just because you all have that bond, you have that connection, you’re more like family than anything.”
Shannon Vreeland, who won an Olympic gold medal in the 800 freestyle relay, said the swimming community has been receptive to those who are gay, including at Georgia and other schools, such as Texas A&M, where men’s swimmer Amini Fonua told the The Battalion, a student newspaper, he is gay.
“We’ve had plenty of gay teammates,” Vreeland said. “We have ones right now that are and it doesn’t really affect anybody. It doesn’t change their perception of anything. I think the Jason Collins thing was great. … I know that people are a little more hesitant to come out on the men’s team and I think things like this really kind of give people that might be nervous about that, it might give them the courage to (come out).”
Fisher, the former Georgia club ice hockey goalie, is from Athens, but moved to Morgan County for high school.
“I’m not sure what was more scandalous,” he said, “living in Madison, Ga., and being interested in hockey or being gay.”
Same-sex marriage is now legal in 13 states and the District of Columbia.
Nearly three in four Americans say that legal recognition of same-sex marriage is “inevitable,” and 51 percent favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in May.
Major League Soccer has its first openly gay player now.
Robbie Rogers revealed in February he is gay, but announced his retirement then. He decided to return after speaking to hundreds of children at a Nike Be True LGBT youth forum in April.
“I seriously felt like a coward,” he told USA Today.
Former Baylor women’s basketball star Brittney Griner, in a recent ESPN the Magazine cover story, said that when she was at the Texas school she wasn’t “fully happy because I couldn’t be all the way out.” She said coach Kim Mulkey told players not to be open publicly about their sexuality because of concern about its impact on recruiting and the program’s image.
Collins, a former Atlanta Hawks player who spent last season for the Washington Wizards, received a mostly favorable reception for his disclosure.
Former Georgia basketball player Damien Wilkins, now with the Philadelphia 76ers, sent an early message of support on Twitter to Collins: “Very proud of and happy for one of the coolest and most down to earth guys I know (at)jasoncollins34.”
How would such an admission be received in most college locker rooms?
“I think there’s much more acceptance in our society now,” Georgia men’s basketball coach Mark Fox said. “I really couldn’t tell you how it would be perceived in locker rooms because each locker room’s different. It obviously was a move by Jason to take the first step and I think it’s been really well received and respected by the national media and the public.”
Three Georgia football players interviewed for this article said they did not know of a gay teammate among the 124 in the program.
“Not that I know of, but you never know,” offensive lineman Chris Burnette said. “We live in a country with a lot of diverse people and you never know.”
Conley said players in a position group or team-wide could be slow to accept a player who came out.
“It would take time,” he said. “I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Football is a sport where guys can be hardheaded. Sometimes they don’t understand things as quickly as others. So it would take time … but with time and with the proper guidance it could be done. It’s just something that needs to be addressed more and something that people are more vocal about, even with people who aren’t struggling with that. … If we can get to that point, it will be a better country and a better locker room.”
Burnette, a devout Christian, said he believes homosexuality is a sin.
“I wouldn’t line up with that lifestyle,” he said. “I definitely would not discriminate against anybody. I feel like all of us have our own vices and we have our own way of living our life.”
He said he would not push his ideas on somebody else because he wouldn’t want to make them uncomfortable, but would preach what he thinks and believes.
“At the end of the day, I’d still love that person just like I love my teammates that I have now,” he said.
Defensive end Garrison Smith, a senior, said “if I found out there were some that were homosexual, I would have open arms. I have a lot of gay friends. They’re good people. … It would be accepted as long as he works hard. … We don’t hold anything against anybody. Everybody’s accepted.”
At least one SEC school has joined up with others around the nation in putting out a “You Can Play” video stating that LGBT athletes are welcome on their teams.
The You Can Play Project is an organization that promotes equality, respect and safety for athletes regardless of sexual orientation.
“The University of Missouri and the Mizzou Athletic Department strive to provide a safe environment for our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender student athletes,” athletic director Mike Alden says in the video. “No individual shall be judged on the court, in the locker room or amongst each other based on their sexual orientation and their gender identification.”
Georgia hasn’t gone that far to film such a video, but athletic director Greg McGarity said that sentiment is already in the culture in the Athletic Association.
“There’s certain things we embrace and that’s treating everyone the same,” he said. “We have had a focus on that on day one here about treating everyone with respect. It’s kind of the golden rule. … I think we have safeguards in place that if we had did have issues … our students are very proactive.”
“Trust me. At SAAC (Student-Athlete Advisory Committee) meetings and things that we could be doing better, they’re very vocal. I think in today’s student-athletes, our students know we listen.”
Among resources for gay students Georgia lists in its student-athlete handbook are GLOBES, the LGBT Center and UGA Lambda Alliance.
“The support system on campus is outstanding,” McGarity said. “… We’re in the business of treating everyone fairly. We don’t get involved in anything other than providing the best services to our student-athletes.”
Fisher was a member of Queer and Ally Athletics when he was a student. The group hosts athletic events like rock climbing, running and weight lifting. He said he knew of some Georgia athletes on team sports who were gay, but not out.
“The gay community in general I feel like still faces a lot of persecution, a lot of hostilities sometimes,” said Georgia tennis player Lauren Herring, who believes if one of her teammates was gay “it wouldn’t be a big deal.”
But, she said, “I think it also varies between girls and guys. I think girls would be much more apt to come out. I think guys obviously would still feel a lot of pressure.”
There is less tolerance for anti-gay rhetoric in sports these days.
Indiana center Roy Hibbert was fined $75,000 for using the slur “no homo” during a postgame playoffs news conference. UFC suspended lightweight Nate Diaz after he used a derogatory term on his Twitter account. Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice was fired after an ESPN report uncovered practice tapes showing abusive behavior, including yelling homophobic slurs at his players.
Conley said he hasn’t heard such language personally in practice, but has “heard other stories about coaches using that. I think yeah, at a certain point that needs to be eliminated because teams can coach and can win without using that kind of language.”
A culture that allows such language could make it less inviting for a gay player to feel like he or she would be accepted.
“In most situations, a lot of people, they hide things like that for whatever reason,” said Georgia basketball forward Marcus Thornton. “It’s just kind of the culture we have. … There are always going to be people uneasy with it for illogical reasons or whatever the case may be. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion.”
Said Burnette: “I wouldn’t say whether or not college football or college sports at all are ready for it, but I think it’s kind of inevitable at this point and we definitely have to be prepared.”
Fisher, who is on the board of directors of the UGA Hockey Foundation, believes in five or 10 years after more pro athletes have come out, society will see that out athletes can be true to who they are and excel on the field.
“At the same time, I know there’s a fear in somebody’s mind whenever they’re considering playing team sports and considering trying to do so professionally,” he said. “… Given that, it’s going to take that kind of snowball effect of people starting to come out and then more people will come out and feel comfortable and then it will be a non-issue.”