Before I met Brittney, I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t fully enthused with my assignment — covering the WNBA draft from behind the scenes. Brittney Griner was a big deal though. She dunked and had an aggressive style that defied the perception of female sports. Essentially, she was known to be manly.
When I first met her, I surprisingly felt a warmth that I never felt before in my life. As a sports reporter, oftentimes your story subject acts like he/she is better than you. And rightfully so. Our paycheck stubs certainly say it. But Brittney was different. She was overly nice to me and completely open. She was uniquely comfortable in her own skin. The more we talked, the more I realized the internal pains she had been through. She’d been bullied her whole life and her parents disowned her at first when she told them she was a lesbian. Somehow, she rose from that darkness and instead of hating people who persecuted her, she ignored them. And for those who didn’t hurt her, she loved.
Brittney told me in my interview she was gay. Jason Collins had just come out a few months earlier. All the sudden, coming out as a gay athlete started to become a big story. By default, I stumbled my way onto what some of my editors have tabbed, “the gay beat.”
As many journalists will tell you, there are stories you remember and stories you don’t remember. I hardly remember covering the Final Four or NBA Draft. I remember all of these stories on the gay beat.
My story with Brittney was my first big cover story with USA Today. And one of my most recent cover stories came with someone who, likewise, reached me on a profound level.
When I first met Chris Burns, I thought I was helping him find himself in some type of way. Little did I know, it was actually the other way around. While my reporting and media platform helped him find freedom and become the first publicly open gay coach in a major sport, he was the one helping me all along. Chris was the definition of “authentic” and yet being closeted robbed him of being his true self to his players and the world. For a lot of my life, I feel like I’ve fought to appear as someone or something to an audience, whether it be my friends, family or people I know. It wasn’t until I got to know Chris that I realized this was just the mask I kept trying to put on. Watching someone fight with all their heart and soul to take off their mask, well, it very naturally encouraged me to stop putting on mine.
Along with USA TODAY’s most talented cover writer, Erik Brady, I crafted a “career” story on Chris’ coming out process. When I first got into this business, I thought I knew what that type of story would look like. It’d be some big game, the most famous athlete…something that looked cool. I was so far off. This is the type of story that has saved lives. I’ve heard many naysayers tell me this is a “non-story” or that Brittney and Chris’ sexual orientations are their own business, not the world’s. While I respectfully understand that surface interpretation, I also find it ignorant. The reason we praise athletes and sports figures is because of what they do on the court or field, sure. But how dare we forget that they are real people as well. Sports fans always tend to favor the player who they can relate to the most. That or it’s the player who will get you points for your fantasy team. So what happens when a sports figure inspires a suicidal 14-year-old who hates himself to choose life over death? That, to me, is worthy of praising more than any game-winning touchdown or basket. Michael Jordan might be the athlete I had on my wall growing up as a kid. But as a man I can see he’s not the same person Brittney and Chris are.
The sports arena is easily one of hardest places in the world to be gay. Gay couples can legally marry and the idea of what’s “normal” continues to evolve. But the locker room represents a microcosm of disgusting perceptions that are still very prevalent in this country — that being gay equates to weakness or femininity, that who you love trumps your athletic ability or work performance.
Fear and macho perception have caused deep pain that much of society seems scared themselves to talk about. Heck, I’ll admit I felt uncomfortable when I first started writing these stories because of insecurity that my meathead sports friends would think I’m gay myself.
Like racism, homophobia is rooted in fear, which begets hatred and demons. While society has been ahead of the sports world with this issue, there’s potential to eradicate these demons on the larger scale by quelling gay hatred and immaturity in the locker room. At least that’s my stance.
Courage, in my eyes, comes in many different forms. I’ve read Facebook posts tearing down one very famous transgender athlete, Caitlyn Jenner. As if there were a “normal” form of courage. The argument is that a soldier dies for his country, while all the transgender did was get a “sex change.” I believe this to be a layer of transphobia; they’re immaturely comparing apples and oranges out of their own pride or angst. Should a soldier who risks his life for his country be honored and have a platform to inspire? Of course. But that platform, as I’ve found, comes and doesn’t come to us whether we deserve it or not. It’s often what we do, once we have that platform, that defines our character. So while I’ve interviewed plenty of athletes and coaches who will never be worthy of a purple heart, I also notice that they make the most of their public platform. Both Brittney and Chris recognized their voice…and capitalized to help others. When millions of people see someone, millions of people can be inspired. That doesn’t mean one form of courage is better than the other. They’re different and one has a bigger reach.
To my point: Mike Krzyzewski is someone who supports the military more than just about any sports face — even challenging President Obama in the process. And yet, Coach K used the words “courage” at least a dozen times in my interview with him speaking about Chris Burns. A lot of coaches, super talented coaches, lack authenticity. Coach K does not. When you’re authentic yourself, you understand the need for that freedom in others. And you comprehend the pain that accompanies hiding.
The cliché, “don’t judge a book by its cover” is something we hear a lot in passing. I believe that couldn’t be truer for how we ought to treat people in everyday life. Whether someone is gay or straight, transgender, black or white, religious or atheist, there’s so much more than what’s presented on the surface. I’m the man I am today because people saw beneath the cocky 20-something year old who was terribly self-absorbed and oftentimes inconsiderate. In this life, it’s so easy to create a masquerade of who you really are in an effort to blend in and have people like you. It’s easy to hide your true self in exchange for being cool.
Twenty minutes before I hit publish on Chris’ story, I felt my longstanding facade disintegrate. Before his life story would be read by millions of people, before his life changed, he texted me this:
“Listen man I know this is going to come out in 20 minutes. And it will be a firestorm. But I wanted you to know just beforehand how much it means to me and my family and friends that you are who you are. You have an incredible sense of compassion and were an absolute consummate professional during the process. It is so difficult to navigate this process and you did it with grace my man. I will never be able to fully express to you what you’ve done for me. And I know we will remain friends but I hope someday I can repay you for what you’ve done for me. I have so much excitement in this moment for you because I’ve been lucky enough to get to know you and your character and I want it to be a reflection of that. You are a great man and an inspiration to me. Thank you for being you.”
In middle school, when I had a bad basketball game or spent the whole game sitting on the bench, my Dad used to leave me notes in the morning to lift my spirit. Notes just like this one. This note from Chris hit the same chord in my heart at a time in my life when I was desperate to find purpose. Perhaps I thought my Dad’s spirit had died when he passed. Chris showed me with that text it never can.
Chris’ message to me and the millions of readers was to “love yourself for you” and to “embrace the struggle that has shaped you for the better; that it can teach you how to be vulnerable and how to better understand people who are struggling.” For a while now, I’ve wanted to hide from my own struggle. I’ve had a mental illness. I’ve suffered from severe depression and anxiety. Trying to act “normal” felt necessary to blend in and survive. But it’s time I embrace my own struggle. I’ve kicked down dark walls and I continue to kick them down every day. I don’t give a damn anymore if someone thinks I’m weak because I’m sad regularly. When you embrace the struggle and love yourself, other people’s perceptions become side mirrors instead of the real one you should be looking at.
In my younger years, I used to call my friends “gay” to degrade them as weak. I used to say “faggot” countless times when I was angry with people. And I said “no homo” to protect my heterosexuality in countless instances. I regret all of it. I can see now what a coward I was being by using that type of language in an effort to blend in as “normal.”
The truth is, it’s been through these stories, on gay athletes and coaches, that I’ve found my true self. I now know, quite vividly and more than ever before, what type of man I want to be. What type of husband I’ll drive to be. And what type of father I’ll be determined to be.
One who is authentic.