April 4, 2014
by Lauren Chval
It’s been more than a month now since Irish senior men’s tennis player Matt Dooley identified himself to the world as the first openly gay student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame.
In some ways, Dooley’s life has gone on in normal fashion, as he competes with the nationally-ranked Irish tennis squad and finishes his final semester of classes at Notre Dame.
In other much more personal, and yet also now more public, ways his life has changed forever.
Dooley used a first-person piece on Outsports–a website dedicated to covering homosexuality in sports–to reveal his story to the public. The Outsports piece broke at 6:44 a.m. on Monday, March 3. Dooley, having returned with his teammates just five hours earlier from a tennis match at the University of Virginia, slept through much of the initial response.
When he finally woke hours later, his cell phone buzzed with unread text messages and unanswered calls. It seemed everyone he knew–classmates from Notre Dame and high school, tennis opponents from the junior circuits of his youth, friends he hadn’t talked to in years–wanted him to know they were proud, supportive and encouraging.
During the week the story emerged, Dooley gave eight interviews in four days. He scheduled those around classes, daily weight room sessions, team practices and meetings with his coaches. Yet, 48 hours after the story emerged, the San Antonio, Texas, product, actually yearned to hear or see some negative comments, if only to understand one vein of the reaction to his coming-out story.
His approach to tennis mirrors his philosophy of handling what may lie ahead of him:
“If I get up fast when I’m playing a guy–if I win the first seven or eight points–I start to get anxious,” Dooley says. “Like, when is it going to come back to get me? If it’s going to be a fight, I want to know.”
Dooley knows what it’s like to fight to survive and he also understands the depths of despair–the belief you might not be able to overcome the demons that hover around you every waking minute of every day. In 2011, after years of wrestling with his sexual identity, Dooley’s depression became so severe that he tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized.
So he held no illusions that his decision to publicly state his homosexuality more than two years later would come without consequences or comment. Yet, despite the fact his family, friends, teammates and others at the University have offered incredible support after his announcement, Dooley understands it only takes one negative thought to send emotions spinning.
He knows this because, for a long time, so many of the negative thoughts came from himself.
Dooley is not an open book. Intelligent and well spoken, he has no problem articulating his thoughts. But he is clearly uncomfortable being the center of attention. He didn’t seek the spotlight. Dooley insists he decided to share his story so publicly for two reasons.
The first was to propel the “You Can Play” initiative on Notre Dame’s campus. “You Can Play” is a social activism campaign dedicated to ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation. Centered around the slogan, “If you can play, you can play,” the movement began in 2012 to honor the memory of Brendan Burke, a student manager for the Miami University hockey team who had worked to increase acceptance of the gay community in hockey before dying in a car accident.
Although each of the University’s 26 athletic teams had agreed to participate in the national campaign’s signature video series before Dooley went public, his announcement created a personal connection to the program’s mantra.
Just hours after Dooley’s announcement, Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics Jack Swarbrick met with him and asked Dooley to help move the project forward. Dooley and Irish rower Olivia Kacsits then visited with every Notre Dame athletic team to further explain the initiative. Over the past few weeks, each Irish team has filmed its portion of the video, with the final shot featuring Swarbrick saying, “Welcome home.”
“Home” is the word Dooley uses most frequently to describe Notre Dame. Between his words and the “You Can Play” video, he wanted to express to other gay athletes that Notre Dame could become that place to them as well.
But the second reason he came forward is even closer to Dooley’s heart.
“I wanted to let other student-athletes that are going through the same situation know that they are not alone and people will support you,” he says. “Hopefully we will pull people back from the pits of depression, which was my personal agenda.”
Dooley’s story created immediate impact and feedback. Hopeful he could help others struggling as desperately as he once had, Dooley included a personal email address at the bottom of his piece. Within hours, hundreds of emails flooded the inbox, sharing both encouragement and personal trials.
A handful of them expressed that Dooley’s words had pulled them back from the edge. His honesty about his fears had made them realize there are others out there experiencing the same pain.
Dooley’s biggest concern with the Outsports piece related to his relationship with his older brother Dan. Matt’s desire to be honest required him to expose many vulnerabilities. Yet the one anecdote that worried him revealed a memory from when Dan was a teenager.
The two brothers were watching “Scary Movie” when Matt was 9 and Dan was 16. Dan’s amused reaction to the sexual orientation of a character confirmed a fear that was already emerging in his younger brother.
For Matt, this marked the hardest thing to share because it risked hurting the person he believes has been most supportive.
The Dooleys grew up in a Catholic, military family. Another word to describe the family, both brothers might suggest, is “competitive.” Everyone in the Dooley clan is athletic and played every sport that fit the schedule. Matt actually preferred basketball–he only picked up a tennis racket because of his older brother.
“It was close to Christmas because I remember playing with Legos in my room,” Matt says. “My dad said they were going to the tennis courts and he would not let me stay home alone because I was too young. I was mad that they made me go, but when we got there, the tennis pro said he wouldn’t teach my brother unless he had a chance to teach me as well. He (the tennis pro) thought I was young enough to turn into something.”
The brothers proved competitive, but with a seven-year age difference, Matt admits much of the “competition” entailed Dan thoroughly crushing him. Dan confesses that when he was in high school–when the gap was the most apparent–Matt wanted to do what his older brother did and play what he played.
It wasn’t only in sports where the elder Dooley set an example. One of the most vivid memories Matt has of his brother involves an incident that occurred within the same timeframe as the “Scary Movie” anecdote. The brothers were snowboarding together–a rare treat for the Texans–when a disabled man headed downhill on a sit-ski wiped out on the slopes.
“My brother immediately snowboarded over there and stayed with him for at least half an hour,” Matt says. “He found the ski that popped off and helped him get everything together. Snowboarding was something we didn’t get to do very often, but my brother spent a significant amount of time trying to help this person while others were just passing by.”
For Matt, this memory trumped the athletic ones when it comes to how much he always wanted to be like his big brother.
“One thing that’s always kind of surprised me about my brother is how caring he is ultimately,” he says. “I’ve always considered myself a compassionate guy, but in my mind, he still beats me in that. It goes back to that competitive thing, I guess.”
Given the closeness of his family, one of the more confusing aspects of Matt’s story is the space he deliberately put between himself and his family following his suicide attempt. In the immediate aftermath, he ignored voicemails and did not return calls. He did not come home for Christmas. For months, the demons raging within Matt loomed stronger than those incredibly tight family bonds.
Even during the football season, when his family traveled to South Bend for a game, he refused to see them. Dan, though, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“I sat outside his dorm room for a couple hours,” Dan says. “When he finally walked out, I made him let me walk with him across campus to wherever he was going. He wasn’t very happy to see me, though that was before he had accepted himself, so I don’t think he wanted to talk to anyone for a while.”
When Matt finally did decide to face both himself and others, Dan was the first person he told. Four months after the suicide attempt, he gave his brother a call.
“The fact that he cut himself off was definitely hard,” Dan says. “It took me a while to understand why. When he did call me, it was just good to hear his voice. At that time, he came out to me, and I think it was really hard for him.”
It would be another several months before Matt reached out to his parents. He says he is still astounded by the fact that his brother kept his secret from them, despite being fully aware of their anguish.
“If I can trust him with that, I can trust him with anything,” says Matt.
It is that sentiment that keeps them closer than ever. The age difference–once so apparent in whiffle ball and driveway basketball–seems hardly worth mentioning now that they have become each other’s confidants.
A huge aspect of Dooley’s story has involved how coming out to his team helped him down the path of self-acceptance. Just as Matt made a deliberate decision that his brother would be the first person he reached out to in his family, it was no accident senior Greg Andrews was the first teammate he trusted enough to tell.
“He knew me,” Dooley says. “He knew I was a good guy, and he was my best friend on the team and he still is. I felt that if anyone was going to accept me, it was going to be him.”
Despite the fact he had told his family, Dooley didn’t assume their positive reaction would be genuine. Your family, he thought, supposedly would stick by you no matter what–telling a friend qualified as a different kind of risk entirely. There was no guarantee that if he told Andrews, their friendship wouldn’t change.
It was this gamble that made Andrews’ reaction all the more meaningful to Dooley.
“It certainly wasn’t going to impact my friendship with him,” Andrews says. “I told him, `You’re still the same Dooley to me.’ I’m really kind of honored that he told me first, and I think it’s brought us closer together.”
In the wake of Andrews’ acceptance, Dooley finally could face the idea of accepting himself. Within months, he came out to Irish tennis coach Ryan Sachire, and at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year he sat down with his teammates.
Dooley describes tennis as an escape for him. On the court, his anxieties and doubts melt away. But now, with his teammates both knowing everything about him and continuing to support him, he lived in an environment that truly provided him safety and encouragement on campus.
In this secure surrounding, Dooley has thrived. He earned tennis monograms during both his sophomore and junior seasons and this year has appeared in the starting lineup in doubles, contributing to pivotal Notre Dame victories over Minnesota and Kentucky. After he graduates from the College of Science in May with a degree in science-business, he will study medicine at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in Houston.
Sachire, a 2000 Notre Dame graduate, says the experience not only has served to make him a better coach but also has made him incredibly proud to be connected with Notre Dame.
“I take a lot of pride in the fact Matt has been supported from the first minute and by everyone that he has come into contact with in the athletic department and at the University,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Notre Dame men’s tennis team is having its best season in more than a decade. The Irish already have knocked off four higher-ranked teams and continue to march on, with their eyes on the prize of ending the season among the top programs in the country.
“This experience with Matt hasn’t taken anything away from the team,” Sachire says. “If anything, it has added to the team and it has changed things for the better.”
The smallest manifestation of this truth could be seen the day of the “You Can Play” video shoot. All student-athletes and members of the athletic department were invited to be in the final shot–filmed at center court of Purcell Pavilion. Dooley, the first person to thank others for coming, introduced the project. But as everyone huddled together to get into the frame, Dooley missed the presence of his teammates, who were nowhere to be found. Just before the camera captured the image, the sound of running footsteps came from the northwest tunnel, and everyone paused to turn and look.
Late from a weightlifting session, his teammates came rushing onto the court with smiles on their faces, eager to join Dooley at the back of the shot.
Dooley waited a whole day and a half for the first negative feedback. By Thursday night, his story has been carried by Associated Press and distributed online by a number of local news outlets. On a certain site, hundreds of negative comments popped up at once.
Some reactions are blindly hateful. Others are simply ignorant. Dooley prepared himself for that reality. What has surprised him, however, is that some people seem to think he is looking for affirmation from them. They think he is trying to convince them of something, and he says their assumption couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Those aren’t the people I’m talking to,” Dooley says. “If I could just have a database of closeted athletes and send my story to those people, then that would have been what I did. But that’s not how it works. My personal goal is to help someone out there that is in the shoes that I was in, struggling with depression. Ultimately I am trying to save a life.”
Still, he reads the comments. He gets through a number of them on Thursday night and feels grumpy in spite of himself. Over the past two years, Dooley has fought his way back from the worst place, but that does not mean the fight is over. He will tell you he still has demons to battle.
It is that fight in him–that desire to confront the first negative reaction–that allows those who love Dooley to know he is strong enough to handle potential bumps in the road.
“You’re looking at someone who is caring and smart and fun to be around. I’m very impressed by his strength and his resilience,” Dan says. “To go through what he went through and then come back, it’s incredible. He’s come so far not only to accept himself but also to be an advocate. I’m glad he has the courage to do it. He’s stronger than I am.”
It is Andrews who finally pulls Dooley from his bad mood on that Thursday night. Andrews screen captures a tweet from @UNDCrushes, a Twitter account established to let Notre Dame students anonymously communicate messages to one another.
The tweet reads: “Matt Dooley–As a closeted gay athlete here, I feel like I am constantly pressured to hide who I am. Your courage gives me hope.”
That is all Dooley needs to see. That is enough to keep him in the fight.