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NEWS ANALYSIS: Palomar College Comets fumble chance to stand against homophobia in sports

The Palomar College Comets football team won national championships in 1991, 1993 and 1998, but this week nobody is talking about that glorious past. Instead, the college is answering questions about why its coaches rescinded an offer to allow a high school all-star to try out for the team. The offer fell through after the coaches learned from the player himself that he is gay.

A highlight-reel video of Jamie Kuntz, an All-Conference linebacker from Dickinson, N.D., caught the attention of the Palomar football staff and the 19-year-old athlete was invited earlier this month to try out for the 2013 Comets team.

As sports writer Roman Jimenez has documented in a series of articles published exclusively by San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, Comets linebacker coach Robert Bala told Kuntz via text messaging:

“I’m really excited for you and to have you. I will let the rest of the staff know. I’ll give you a call tomorrow to move forward with everything.”

But a couple of days later, the offer was rescinded after head coach Joe Early and the staff learned – from Kuntz, no less – that Kuntz was gay and that he had initially lied to his former coach in North Dakota about kissing his much-older boyfriend in a press box after somebody told his coach about the incident.

Hours after SDGLN published its story about Palomar rescinding its offer to Kuntz, Coach Early and college spokeswoman Laura Gropen spoke to Jimenez and denied that the “gay issue” had anything to do with the football staff’s change of heart. Gropen insisted that Palomar College coaches “don’t discriminate against anyone,” and pointed out that the campus funds an LGBTQ resource center for students.

Coach Early said: “Our big thing is, he lied … There’s no sense in bringing someone in from 2,000 miles away who lied to his coach. It’s an issue of integrity and character.”

SDGLN readers didn’t buy their arguments.

Marco Luxe, identified with USC Gould School of Law, wrote:

Yes Coach Early, it is "an issue of integrity and character”, but it is you who failed.

Kristy Salazar, a host on the “Out of the Closet” online radio show in San Diego, wrote:

“Regardless of what the coach says it is very clear to anyone with common sense that this young man is being discriminated because of his sexual orientation not because he lied. Im [sic] sure if every other player was held under the microscope of integrity or the definition of integrity that jamie kuntz is being held under most likley none of those players would be on that team. Society has forced many individuals to lie about their sexuality out of fear of discrimination and many people have had to live their entire life this way. If the world accepted us for who we are young people would not be forced to lie just to protect themselves and their passions. The sooner the world learns to love people for who they are the sooner we can all live authentic lives despite our differences”

Coach Early fails to understand Jamie’s coming-out situation

Any child who has grown up in a small town far from the big-city lights knows how lonely it can be to come to terms with one’s sexuality, especially if you are coming out as LGBT in a world that is overwhelmingly heterosexual and often not very understanding or welcoming.

Many youngsters grow up without any role models and nobody to talk to about their feelings about same-sex attraction, making the world a lonely place where many children pretend to be somebody they aren't, as a coping tool or to avoid bullying or worse.

Dickinson, N.D., has a population of about 18,000. The county seat of Stark County is a lonely outpost along Interstate 94 more than 100 miles from the state capital of Bismarck. A Google search for gay bars and LGBT centers for the entire state of North Dakota indicates there are none, so it would be difficult for Jamie to find somebody he could relate to during his tender years of self-discovery of his sexual identity.

Jamie met his boyfriend online, and the older gentleman lives in Colorado, almost 1,000 miles away. Their story remains private, and neither wish to talk about the extent of their relationship. That is fair. This story has nothing to do with their relationship, other than it must have “disgusted” somebody in a football stadium in Colorado last September so much that they told Jamie’s coach that they had seen him kissing an older man in the press box.

Yes, the 19-year-old told a lie to his coach when he was confronted unexpectedly. But think about the situation. Jamie was yanked off the bus by his coach and questioned like a police suspect. Who knows what runs through your head in such a circumstance? Will I be left behind, more than 900 miles from home? What will happen to my scholarship and my place on the team? Did I do something wrong?

To his credit, Jamie told the coach the truth just hours after arriving on campus. Instead of lending a sympathetic ear, instead of trying to understand the complex process of coming out for teenagers like Jamie, who was out to almost nobody, the coach decided to kick Jamie off the team. Was it the “ick” factor? Homophobia? Did the punishment fit the “crime,” as Jamie puts it?

In one fell swoop, Jamie became the poster boy for the homophobia that exists in U.S. sports. His story made national headlines last September, and he was featured on Huffington Post and ESPN and Fox Sports.

Flash forward to this week, Super Bowl week, which captures worldwide attention. San Francisco 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver tells a radio host that gays were not welcome on his team. The 49ers quickly responded that Culliver did not speak for the team and that the player had since been counseled. Culliver quickly apologizes for his comments and acknowledges that his words cause a lot of pain to many people.

But Culliver's comments are typical. It is this kind of mentality that Jamie faces in his quest to play college football and still be true to himself. He simply wants to be judged for his athletic skills, and nothing more. The fact that he happens to be gay should be a non-issue in a perfect world.

Palomar dances around the truth

SDGLN’s series of articles have generated remarkable web traffic and brought extensive media attention to Palomar College ... and not in a good way.

The day after speaking to SDGLN, Gropen was questioned by Channel 10 News in San Diego, following up on SDGLN’s coverage. She even danced around the issue of whether the Comets had rescinded the offer for Jamie to try out ... even though SDGLN has obtained text messages indicating otherwise.

“I can’t say that is true because we are still investigating exactly what happened,” Gropen told Channel 10. That is almost polar opposite of what Gropen and Early told SDGLN less than 24 hours earlier.

Palomar reportedly is getting heat from LGBT faculty and students on campus, sources tell SDGLN.

It is funny, and sad, to see Gropen on the TV telling Channel 10 viewers that if Jamie “has the talent to get on the team, he will be on the team. ... We've attempted to phone him to let him know he's welcome to try out.”

Jamie laughed at that statement, telling the TV reporter he knows that is a hollow offer because the coaches have already made up their minds.

Palomar College blew an amazing chance to show the world that it fully embraces an all-inclusive athletic program, and it fumbled a grand opportunity to shatter the glass ceiling that exists for openly gay jocks.

What a crying shame.

Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at ken@sdgln.com, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to 888-442-9639, ext. 713.