College football players are used to being cheered for. But when Mitch Eby’s teammates at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., recently erupted in applause for the junior defensive end, it was entirely unexpected.
Why? Eby had just told them he was gay, becoming the latest in a string of athletes to upend the sports world’s macho stereotypes by coming out.
“I came up here today to talk to you guys about something that I’ve been dealing with for quite a while,” said Eby, reading from a speech he’d written out beforehand, at a team meeting two weeks ago. “It’s something personal that I’ve always thought I could just bury away, but I can’t. We live life so worried about how other people view us that we forget about ourselves. I can no longer go on living in fear, repressing myself because of how society may view me. I can no longer lie to my friends, family and teammates. It’s time I lived life for myself for a change.”
“With that being said, I am ready to share with you all that I am gay,” he declared.
In an interview with OutSports, Eby said he struggled with the decision to come out to his team, for fear of making waves or upsetting the dynamic. He conceded to his teammates during the speech that it would be “irrational” to expect that they accept his sexuality right away–all he wanted was their respect.
But their reaction took him by surprise. After Eby finished speaking, his teammates broke out into applause and engulfed him in hugs. One even told Eby he was his “hero.” Weeks later, the team is still showering him with support.
“Some of the people I thought would take it the worst have since been the friendliest to me,” Eby said to Out Sports. “More people have said ‘what’s up’ to me in passing and been even friendlier than ever before.”
In February, former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam said he received a similar outpouring of support when he came out to his teammates last summer. If drafted in May, Sam stands to become the first openly gay player in the National Football League.
A month prior to Sam’s public announcement, Conner Mertens became the first active college football player to come out as bisexual. Eby said he reached out Mertens for guidance when he was considering how to tell his teammates that he was gay.
Out Sports has chronicled approximately two dozen athletes who have chosen to come out publicly this year, pointing to a potential shift in the traditional culture of hyper-masculinity and homophobia that has for so long dominated locker rooms. Off the field, sports fans are also giving gay athletes more reason to be encouraged. According to a recent poll conducted by TargetPoint-GQRR, 79 percent of Americans said they would draft Michael Sam over a straight candidate were Sam the better player.
Catch up on the week’s LGBT news – Out There with Thomas Roberts: