Senior tennis player shares experience as a gay student-athlete
Mike Monaco | Thursday, March 6, 2014
Matt Dooley returned to campus around 2 a.m. Monday after the Irish lost to Virginia on Sunday in Charlottesville, Va.
A second-semester senior, Dooley is taking six credits, and he doesn’t have class on Mondays until 12:30 p.m. So he set his alarm for 11 a.m.
“I woke up at like 10:30 to my phone going nuts,” Dooley said.
Dooley wrote an article on Outsports.com that detailed his life as a gay athlete at Notre Dame. In the article, Dooley said he attempted suicide in 2011 because “death was better than accepting — or revealing — that I was gay.” In September, two years after attempting suicide, Dooley came out to his teammates. A few months later, Dooley became ready to go public with his story.
The original piece on Outsports.com had been tweeted more than 550 times and shared on Facebook more than 5,600 times as of Wednesday afternoon. Dooley said since that 10:30 a.m. wake-up call, “it’s been 24-7,” receiving countless phone calls, texts, tweets, emails and more.
“So far it’s been all positive. I’m still waiting for that first negative,” Dooley said of the reaction he’s received. “We’ve gotten emails saying we’ve already saved people’s lives, which has been great.
“I’m not a Twitter guy, and it blew my mind how fast every aspect of my life could be reached in one second, because I was getting calls and texts from people I went to high school [with], people I played tennis with, people from all over the country. D-I tennis programs all over, people text me, ‘Do you mind if I share this with my team? It’s such a powerful message.’ It’s like, how did you know about this already? Wow. It was published an hour-and-a-half ago. So it’s been wild. Obviously hectic is probably saying it lightly.”
Dooley said he decided to write his piece to tell people in similar situations to his in 2011 (and before) that they’re not alone and to be visible in the public sphere as a “factor of legitimacy” to the You Can Play initiative in the works at Notre Dame. In tandem with the Student Welfare and Development office in the athletic department, Dooley has been working with You Can Play, an organization that works to fight homophobia in sports.
“Our current student-athletes and prospective student-athletes could look at it and say, ‘Well, I could feel at home at this university,’” Dooley said. “So that’s been the main goal of that.”
He said once he was ready to share his story, he wanted to do so as quickly as possible before he was through as a student-athlete, before someone could ask why he didn’t do anything while he was in school playing.
On Sept. 16, 2011, Dooley tried to take his own life. As he wrote in his article, “that day I wanted nothing more than to escape the anguish of coming out to my family, my friends and, in a way, myself.”
Dooley talks now about internalized homophobia, about not liking yourself, about a fear of society and fears of abandonment and worthlessness.
“When you’re dealing with something like depression or intense fear like that from a social stigma, it really does interfere with every aspect of your life,” he said.
His tennis game suffered. He couldn’t memorize things well in class. His mind wandered out of worry and fear when he listened to lectures.
Dooley, though, was able to find “a better place, and then acceptance came.” He came out to his parents in July 2012, following his sophomore year. He then came out to teammate Greg Andrews at the beginning of his junior year.
“I was surprised,” Andrews said. “I wasn’t really expecting that when he did tell me, but like Matt mentioned in the article, I was just like, ‘Wow, I’m surprised, but I don’t care at all. You’re still one of my friends, and you’re still the same Dooley to me, and it doesn’t matter at all.’”
Dooley then came out to his coaches in early September and the rest of the team in mid-September. The team’s reaction?
“Support. It was 110 percent support,” Irish head coach Ryan Sachire said. “I can honestly tell you since that point in time, there’s not been one awkward moment. There’s not one issue within our squad. It’s just simply been something [like], okay, this is a part of who Matt is. We love Matt. We care for Matt. He’s a great teammate of ours and a great friend of our players and it’s who he is and we love him and respect him for it and we’re going to move on and be a great team.”
Dooley said he wasn’t too worried about coming out to his teammates.
“I expected it to be positive, but you kind of get a hard shell after a while,” Dooley said. “There’s obviously the few that I was worried about. But I also knew that if there’s a room of 15 guys and two or three were negative, they’d get squashed immediately. So I wasn’t that worried. And like I said, all 15 were 100 percent with me.”
Dooley said the support he received from his team and family has been crucial to him in taking the next step to come out publicly Monday.
“I guess the one thing I’d tell any student-athlete is just make sure you’re doing as much as you can to allow yourself to be happy,” Dooley said. “You’re not alone. There are other people struggling with it, too. Worst comes to worst, you’re still not alone. And that is the biggest fear. So, one, just take care of yourself. Make sure you’re not holding yourself back. That’s the biggest thing. And two, you’re not alone. No matter what it is, no matter how bad things go.”
Once Dooley told his teammates and Sachire he was going to get involved with helping others, Sachire and Dooley went to senior associate athletic director Mike Harrity, who serves as associate athletics director for student-athlete development and community programming. Dooley has since worked closely with Student Welfare and Development program coordinator Ally Stanton, who has been the office’s main contact with You Can Play.
You Can Play was launched in 2012. One of its co-founders, Patrick Burke, is a 2006 Notre Dame graduate. Burke’s brother, Brendan, who was a student manager of the Miami (Ohio) hockey team, died in a car crash in February 2010, a few months after he publicly came out as gay. Patrick, who says You Can Play “is our tribute to [Brendan],” is also the Director of Player Safety for the National Hockey League (NHL). You Can Play is an official partner of the NHL and Major League Soccer. The organization has also done extensive work with Major League Baseball and the National Football League, among others.
In the collegiate world, You Can Play has done different on-campus presentations at dozens of schools, and it has a video project in which schools can send in their own ‘You Can Play’ videos. Burke said once Stanton got in touch with him in late 2013, You Can Play began planning its Notre Dame initiatives. One of those initiatives is getting Irish student-athletes to participate in a video “to show their support for LGBT athletes,” Burke said.
“Our videos are pretty simple,” Burke said. “Our motto is ‘If you can play, you can play.’ If you’re good enough to help a team win, then your sexual orientation doesn’t matter. So whether it’s tennis, whether it’s softball, whether it’s fencing, whether it’s football, if you’re a contributing athlete, then who you love off the field, ice, court, whatever, doesn’t matter.
“It’s a very easy way for athletes to get involved and just say, ‘Yeah, I went to Notre Dame because I want to win championships. If the person next to me can help me win a championship, that’s all that matters.’”
Burke said they’re also working through the logistics of an on-campus presentation — either in late summer or early fall, if not in the spring — in which You Can Play will address as many athletes as possible.
“They’re called invisible athlete forums, and we bring in LGBT athletes to speak about their experiences in a locker room where a closeted athlete often feels invisible,” Burke said.
Burke said he is not surprised at the initiatives in the works at Notre Dame.
“Nothing we do contradicts Catholic teaching,” Burke said. “Our message is simply that you should treat other people with respect and dignity. And that’s lifted directly out of the Catechism [of the Catholic Church].”
Burke said in the first couple months of You Can Play’s launch, the organization received a letter from a canonical lawyer, a priest whose job is to study canon law for the Church, who said You Can Play’s mission statement falls directly in line with Catholic teaching on homosexuality.
“Everything we do, everything we preach — take care of each other, show each other love and respect — that’s all exactly in line with the Catholic teaching,” Burke said. “So when people ask us, ‘Are you surprised that a school like Notre Dame would support a gay athlete?’, I’m happy. It’s come a long way since when I was there. I know that. It’s only been eight years now, but I can tell for a fact that a lot has changed since I left.
“But I don’t think it’s surprising anymore. The vast majority of Notre Dame students are supportive of their LGBT classmates. … I’m proud of Notre Dame for getting behind this, for getting behind Matt. I’m happy that they’re behind it. But I don’t know if ‘surprise’ is the word that I’d choose. I think that would sell Notre Dame short if I said I was surprised that they rallied to support one of their students.”
And that student, in turn, hopes to change things for other students. Before heading to the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where Dooley will continue his studies (he has been exposed mostly to orthopedic surgery and internal medicine but is keeping an open mind), he wanted to embark on the You Can Play initiative “so that it can do its most beneficial work for anybody that needs it.”
“Going back to the roots of You Can Play, it’s all respect and not politics,” Dooley said. “You don’t have to agree with someone’s sexual orientation, but it doesn’t have to do with that. It doesn’t have to do with your sexual orientation, your gender, your race. It’s all about just respecting your teammates and your peers.
“Everyone can get behind that.”
Sports writer Mary Green contributed to this story.