Coaches play a pivotal role in inspiring athletes, building strong teams and supporting success. They can also help create respectful locker rooms where LGBT athletes are welcome and supported.
Mike Sirant has coached the University of Manitoba’s (U of M) Bisons men’s hockey team for 23 years. He’s also coached in professional development leagues in Europe and was the coach of Denmark’s national team in the world championship in 2007 and 2008.
He says there’s a supportive environment in his locker room and in U of M athletics as a whole.
“We have a positive culture in our program,” says Sirant. “We have some good quality people and we emphasize [to] our players to not just be good athletes but good people as well.”
Sirant says the U of M values respect and integrity, but says quite a few years ago he did hear some homophobic language in his locker rooms.
“You would hear it occasionally,” he says. “But it’s a non-issue now and I don’t hear it anymore. I don’t hear it on the ice, in the dressing room.”
He says the U of M Bisons have a zero tolerance policy on bullying.
“We don’t permit hazing or any type of bullying,” Sirant says. “If we did have an issue we’d discuss it with the individuals involved in a firm but fair manner. That type of behavior is not acceptable in our program.”
Sirant says if a player were to come out to him, it wouldn’t be a problem.
“If the player felt comfortable doing it then we would be supportive,” he says. “In the sports environment now it’s really more about if you have the ability to perform at a certain level then you’ve earned the right to be there.”
He says projects like You Can Play, which promotes respect and equality for all athletes, are important in improving homophobia in sports. He says coaches can help, but it’s a much bigger issue.
“It starts with society as a whole,” he said. “We all need to be accepting. [But,] in the microorganism of a team, yes it does start with the coach.”
A high school basketball coach, who asked to remain anonymous, says he’s never heard any homophobic comments in his 20 years of coaching.
“We kind of have a different locker room culture,” he says. “[In] high school basketball we don’t really spend a lot of time in the actual locker room and I’ve never heard any homophobic slurs.”
“When I’m out of the room, that’s a different story; I don’t know.”
The basketball coach adds that when he played competitive football growing up, there were a lot of homophobic references.
“Very clearly I remember the word “gay” being tossed around and there were a lot of jokes about guys when they were changing,” he says. “It’s never meant to be harmful or hurtful, but at the end of the day we don’t know who’s in the locker room and who they are.”
He says a solution starts with coaches and parents passing down accepting attitudes.
“It’s 100 per cent my responsibility,” he says. “We [coaches] need to be positive role models and show these kids to be respectful.”
The high school coach says if a player were to come to him and say he wanted to come out to the team, he would hold a meeting and welcome discussion.
“I’d have a closed door meeting and allow him or her to [tell] the team,” he says. “Then I’d let the players just have a discussion about it. I’d make sure they’re ready to do that and then we’d open the floor to questions.
“If a high school athlete comes out to his team, he basically comes out to the entire school and neighbourhood,” the coach continues. “With the Internet and word of mouth everything gets around so quickly.”
He says he hasn’t had to deal with any major bullying issues while coaching, but he’s always implemented a strict policy on his teams.
“If someone on my team was bullying another player I would have to deal with it for sure,” he says. “We’d look into both sides of the story and get to the truth and we wouldn’t let that stuff go on. Players who don’t buy into the team-first mentality are hard to coach.”
This is the 9th and final article in a series by Stephen Burns on sexual orientation in sports. You can read the other articles in which Burns profiles several gay athletes and examines their journey through the world of sports, by clicking on this link here: Out of the closet and off the bench