Friday, March 9, 2007

Say It Ain't So, Pokey!

Pokey Chatman, the coach of the LSU women’s basketball team, resigned abruptly yesterday amid rumors that the reason for this surprising turn of events is an “inappropriate” relationship with one of the players on her team. Though the reports of this relationship are unconfirmed as yet, it is difficult to imagine many other reasons for a young successful rising star African-American coach with a team ranked in the top 10 to leave suddenly for “other career opportunities.” I mean, she isn’t even going to see them through the tournament. She is gone now – right before the brackets are announced. This does not look good.

If true, this situation is tragic from so many different perspectives, it’s difficult to know where to begin. First, I want to be clear: I believe that coach-athlete romantic/sexual relationships are never appropriate and are never to be condoned. If that is what happened here, then I believe Pokey made the right decision by resigning. I would feel this way regardless of the genders or sexual orientations of the people involved. It just isn’t right.

Part of the tragedy is that a woman coach resigning because of a sexual relationship with one of her woman players provides ammunition to people who believe that lesbians are a threat to other women and the reputation of women’s sports in general: “See, we told you: They (lesbians) are not to be trusted in coaching positions.”

When most lesbian coaches are completely closeted, any news story about lesbian relationships in sport takes on added significance and feeds the unsavory stereotypes about lesbian coaches. Never mind that men coaching women also become sexually involved with female players on their teams and it is just as unethical. When this happens though, the actions of one man are not automatically generalized to the entire population of male coaches.

This is what I fear will happen as a result of the LSU situation. Presumed lesbian coaches everywhere will be suspect and seen as potential threats to their players. Parents and high school recruits who want to avoid lesbian coaches will have their prejudice confirmed. Unethical college coaches who negatively recruit based on sexual orientation will have a more attentive audience. It is a tragedy for everyone when fear and stereotypes of any group guide decisions about where to attend college or play ball.

Of course, there are lesbians coaching Division 1 basketball teams. Even though they are closeted, everyone knows they are there. Most of them are ethical, mature and hard-wired to avoid ever even giving the appearance of “inappropriate” interest in their players. They know the stereotypes all to well and are probably more careful with their relationships with players as a result. When I was coaching, it sent cold chills down my spine to think of any physical contact or relationship with members of my team being misinterpreted or being accused of having a sexual relationship with any of my athletes.

That is one of the many tragedies of homophobia in women’s sports. We do not get to appreciate the many positive contributions of lesbian coaches because they do it all from the closet. One high profile serious lapse in judgment (if the rumors about Pokey Chatman are true) casts a dark shadow over all lesbian coaches and makes it less likely that any of them will consider coming out anytime soon as a result.

This is a tragedy for Pokey, her team, women’s basketball and lesbian coaches everywhere. It is also a tragedy because we are losing one of the few African-American women coaches in Division 1 women’s basketball. This is a sad day all around. Pokey, please say it ain’t so.


Carol Anne said...

I'm a lesbian. I'm a long-time fan of women's basketball. I'm well aware that there are lesbian coaches and players. I'm sad that they remain closeted for self-protection, but I understand why.

As for Pokey Chatman, she's not helping herself by issuing press releases but refusing to talk. I don't like the media's use of unnamed sources, but that's an inevitability, when nobody is open.

I feel very sorry for the members of the LSU women's basketball team. Their former coach's irresponsible behavior hurts them.

Kathy Belge said...

Thank you Pat Griffin for so eloquently outlining the issue. I am so afriad that this whole issue with Pokey Chatman will set our whole community back.

Anonymous said...

If true, the allegations about Pokey Chatman will make life even more difficult for all those other closeted lesbian coaches out there. And I agree that sexual relationships betweeen college players and coaches are inappropriate and not to be condoned. But homophobia and internalized homophobia is rampant in college women's sports, perhaps especially basketball, which has the highest profile and the most money at stake: consider the situation of the ex-Baylor player recently reported on by *The Chronicle of Higher Education*. Once she came out to herself, she felt compelled to leave the program, knowing she would have to deny her identity and her self for the duration of her eligibility.

Coaches and players are under tremendous pressure in elite programs. Having to live in the closet only adds to the pressure. Having to live without a partner--or having to keep the partner even more firmly in the closet--only worsens the pressure for a coach. What must that be like? I can't imagine.

My guess is that there will be litle or no support for Pokey Chatman among the elite basketball coaches. She will be ostracized and the larger issues outlined above, which I believe contributed to the poor judgment demonstrated by Chatman, will be swept under the carpet. I will eat my hat if Nancy Lieberman or Pat Summitt or Tara Vandervere or Nell Fortner says on ESPN that, while Chatman's alleged behavior is to be condemned, the underlying causes of that behavior should also be examined, causes that are rooted in the dishonesty of the basketball coaching profession, a dishonesty that makes it impossible for certain elite coaches, those who are lesbian, to even conceive of having a normal, adult sexual relationship in which the coach might find true and needed support.

Who is supporting Pokey Chatman right now???? And should lesbians just say, "oh how bad for us?" or, "how bad for our other closeted coaches?" Or should we use this situation to point out the hypocrisy of this sports establishment and profession? Should we use this situation to point out the way money, boosters, and sponsors profit from requiring persons to live a lie?

You know, I never thought I would say this, but maybe lesbians should boycott NCAA women's basketball, until lesbians can participate openly in the NCAA.

Anonymous said...

Intimate relationships between coaches and players are indeed inappropriate, but so is the hostile environment for lesbians in the NCAA. It is ironic that coaches like Rene Portland or Kim Mulkey are condoned or celebrated by fans, programs, the NCAA and their peers, when the many, many lesbian players and coaches in intercollegiate athletics cannot even acknowledge or enter into the kind of adult, centered, committed relationship many of us enjoy. The loss of Pokey Chatman to the profession is devastating because it did not have to be so. Had she had the support *from the beginning* for an open, equitable, lasting relationship--or even the acceptance of this possibility--she might still be taking her top-10 team and players to Cleveland in three weeks. As it is, the team has been let down--as much by the crabbed and less-than-courageous professional environment that exists in women's sports as by the individual actions of any coach. We need stronger support networks and louder voices to come to lesbian players and coaches defense in troubled times, and less of a knee-jerk reaction than says, "oh, no, this will make us all look bad." Being an out lesbian doesn't make anyone look bad. But permitting to persist an environment that forces people so cruelly into and out of closets does.

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