Saieed Rihan is an average student. He comes from a town called Escondido, just north of San Diego. He enjoys hiking around San Luis Obispo. He is a kinesiology senior with little idea of what he wants to do after graduation.
Saieed Rihan is a different kind of student. He can run four miles in a little more than 21 minutes. He is the treasurer of the Cal Poly Distance Club.
And he is gay.
Rihan is part of a growing number of athletes comfortable enough to make their homosexuality public. This group’s recent notable addition is United States men’s national soccer team forward Robbie Rogers, who came out Feb. 15. Rogers, who had been playing for Stevenage in English soccer’s third-tier league, announced in a public statement that he would be stepping away from professional soccer in the near term.
Rihan knew he was gay when attending Escondido High School, but remained closeted out of fear. Escondido did not feel like a welcoming community to him, and Rihan was worried about becoming a social outcast.
When Rihan began running for Palomar Community College, he broke away from high school drama. He bonded with many of the other cross country runners, including Cameron Avilez.
Avilez was one of Rihan’s best friends, but held a grudge against gays because his father received catcalls from homosexuals while running in San Francisco. Like the rest of the world, he had no idea Rihan was gay.
One day, Rihan turned to Avilez while out on a run and asked, “You want to know what really sucks?”
“What?” Avilez responded.
“Wanting to tell you that I’m gay, but not knowing how you’ll react.”
Avilez showed little reaction. After practice, Rihan decided to tell a few more teammates. Again, it didn’t really seem to sink in.
At the end of the next practice, Rihan noticed other runners would stop talking when he approached. As Rihan turned to leave, Avilez came racing out of the shower.
Avilez asked if Rihan had been serious about his sexuality. Rihan said yes, he was tired of hiding and had no idea what would happen next.
“He was like, ‘All right, that’s cool. Everything’s still the same with us. It doesn’t matter,’” Rihan said. “That was a big relief for me, just him saying that.”
When Rihan transferred to Cal Poly, he was open with everyone on the club team, and has again received nearly universal support. The only negative reaction has come from his mother, whose Muslim faith looks down on homosexuality.
Teammates would probably be just as welcoming if Rihan was a gay athlete on one of Cal Poly’s Division I teams, he said.
Even after Rogers’ announcement, the four biggest sports in America — baseball, basketball, football and hockey — are still waiting for an active athlete to come out.
“(When an active player comes out), I think it’s going to be huge in the sports world,” Rihan said. “It’s going to be getting a lot of attention. If their teammates are supportive, that could be a big help.”
Between those four sports, there are approximately 3,500 professional athletes. It would be downright foolish to assume there are no active gay players.
Some athletes, such as basketball player John Amaechi and cornerback Wade Davis, made their homosexuality public after retirement. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Davis mentioned three players he knew who came out to teammates.
“Maybe all the media attention, they don’t want to deal with that,” Rihan said. “It just seems easier to try and fit in and everything, but … then young LGBT people who do like sports don’t have a role model to look up to.”
Cal Poly boasts 19 Division I sports teams and 554 student-athletes. Though Rihan does not know any other gay athletes, he is sure there must be others.
“Oh, definitely,” Rihan said. “I mean, with how many athletes we have, there’s at least one. There are straight-acting people who are (gay), it’s just their preference (to act straight). I know there has to be at least one, chances are more.”
Senior midfielder Chris Fisher is the captain of the men’s soccer team and said he would be fine with a gay teammate. The team’s bond is far more important than a player’s sexuality, he said.
“We’re all really close, and I don’t think it would change anything,” Fisher said. “It’s kind of more something personal for them, it doesn’t affect the team. If it bothers another person, that’s their own problem.”
If a gay athlete came out at Cal Poly today, he or she would likely receive strong support from most if not all teammates, Fisher said.
“I can’t imagine who they liked would ever be a problem,” he said. “I don’t think it would change a thing at all, actually.”