Thursday, September 30, 2010

When Homophobia Kills

This has been a tragic week of news:

Four young boys killed themselves after enduring anti-gay bullying from school classmates. Seth Walsh, 13; Asher Brown, 13, Justin Aaberg, 15; Billy Lucas, 15 could not face another day of relentless cruelty at the hands of their peers.

Tyler Clementi, an 18 year old college freshman at Rutgers University jumped off the GW bridge after his roommate of three weeks and a friend placed hidden cameras in Tyler’s dorm room and broadcast on the internet a video of Tyler kissing a man.

Tyler Wilson, an 11 year old, who, because he chose to be a cheerleader for a community sports league, had his arm broken by bullies from the football team who assaulted him because they didn’t approve of a boy cheerleader. After the incident received media attention, bullies have threatened to break Tyler’s other arm because he “told on them.”

Chris Armstrong, a gay man, was elected president of the student body at the University of Michigan is being harassed and defamed at his home and on the internet by a Michigan assistant District Attorney and Michigan alum who claims to be a “concerned Christian.”

I am speechless with despair over the senselessness of these news stories.

The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network 2009 School Climate Survey reports that almost 9 out of 10 LGBT students experience some kind of harassment at school because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity/expression. This tells me that what these students experienced is not out of the ordinary.

Dan Savage has put up a web site on youtube called the It Gets Better Project where young and older adult LGBT people have posted videos talking to LGBT youth telling them that life does get better. I hope that these videos do provide some hope for young people who are experiencing harassment in schools or who are experiencing such despair and loneliness that they are contemplating taking their own lives. It is a good emergency intervention.

But why do young people have to wait for it to get better? Every young person should be able to go to school and feel safe and be treated with respect by teachers, coaches and classmates. It seems to me that this is a basic human right all children and young people should have. It is a national shame that we are not demanding that schools and communities take the steps necessary to make this happen. It appears that we have, in fact, left lots of children behind.

If you are a teacher, a coach, a parent, a teammate, a classmate – what are you doing to make the schools in your community safe and respectful places? I want you to consider that, if you are doing nothing, you are complicit in the deaths of some young people and the psychological terrorizing of others that will affect them the rest of their lives. This is a problem that requires all of us to pay attention and act. Go to the GLSEN web site if you are not sure what you can do. We are all part of this.

Friday, September 24, 2010

IUPUI Fires Women’s Basketball Coach

In a follow up to my July 29 blog on this, IUPUI has fired women’s basketball coach, Shann Hart “without cause.” This means that they do not plan to make public the reasons for the coach’s dismissal. Hart will also receive the balance of her contract through 2013 - $300,000. The allegations against Hart, all of which she denies, included a range of outrageous behavior including snooping into the personal sex lives of her athletes to identify lesbians on her team. The climate of fear resulting from the coach’s behavior was the cause for 29 players and assistant coaches leaving the program over the last four years. After the players’ allegations were made public in July, former players at American University where Hart previously coached also came forward with similar allegations of abuse. Hart has not commented publicly on her dismissal yet.

An important object lesson is lost because IUPUI is not making the results of their investigation and the cause for Hart’s dismissal public and because Hart will still get her salary, which is quite a lot of money. Outrageous behavior by coaches, both men and women, has been tolerated in college and high school athletics for far too long. Psychological and physical abuse of athletes by coaches who lead with fear and intimidation is not acceptable in any context, especially one that is affiliated with an educational institution. We need schools to stand up and be specific about reasons for dismissal when questions of abusive and discriminatory behavior are involved rather than leave the reasons for a coach’s dismissal unknown. Firing a coach accused of abusive behavior “without cause” rather than making the reasons public sends an ambiguous message. What was she fired for then? Why aren’t they making the reasons for her dismissal public?

Open discrimination against women athletes because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation, which is part of the allegations against Hart, has also been tolerated or ignored by school leaders. I had hoped that after the very public lawsuit against Rene Portland at Penn State, that other coaches and administrators would have gotten the message that there are serious consequences to anti-gay discrimination in college athletics. Unfortunately, this situation is a reminder that there are still coaches who believe that fear, abusive treatment and discriminatory practices are acceptable coaching behaviors. I hope they are reading the newspapers today.

Here is a follow-up article on IUPUI's refusal to make public the reason for Hart's dismissal.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

NCAA Eliminates the Office of Diversity and Inclusion in Restructuring Move

USA Today reports that the NCAA has eliminated the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and the VP position directing that office held by Charlotte Westerhaus. This is one of 17 positions eliminated in the restructuring.

The Office of Diversity and Inclusion was created by the former ED of the NCAA, Miles Brand, who died of pancreatic cancer last year. This unit in the NCAA was responsible for providing education programs to NCAA member schools on race, gender and sexual orientation issues in athletics. Executive Vice President Bernard Franklin will become the NCAA's chief inclusion officer in the restructuring.

I was immediately concerned that these changes might signal that the NCAA was backing away from the commitment to diversity and inclusion described on their web page. However, after talking to some colleagues within the NCAA, I am hopeful that these and other structural changes might be a good thing. I am hopeful that the changes will enable the NCAA to broaden their focus on race and gender equity to include more programming on LGBT issues, disability issues and other aspects of diversity and inclusion.

I guess as we learn more about the changes going on at the NCAA we’ll know more. In the meantime, I am choosing to be optimistic about the restructuring as it affects the NCAA’s diversity and inclusion commitment.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Update on Former SMU Basketball Player’s Lawsuit Against Women’s Basketball Coach

I first blogged about this situation in September, 2008 and then again in October, 2009. Well, finally after two years a judge has ruled that the lawsuit can go to trial. A quick summary: Jennifer Colli, a player on the SMU women’s basketball team, alleged that her scholarship was revoked after she complained about coach Rhonda Rompola’s inappropriate interest in players’ sex lives. In particular Colli, backed by signed statements from four teammates, charged that Rompola was anti-gay and particularly hostile toward lesbians in relationships on her team. The irony here was that apparently it was fairly common knowledge on the team that Rompola had been in a relationship with one of her female assistant coaches (she subsequently married a male assistant coach for the men’s team, who now lives and coaches in North Carolina, makes you go hmmmmm). Anyway, an internal school investigation of Colli’s accusations found that they had no merit.

SMU asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, but the judge has cleared the way for a trial finding problems with SMU’s internal investigation. Specifically, the athletic director never talked to the other players about Colli’s accusations and apparently the school did violate school and NCAA regulations in revoking Colli’s scholarship. Also, the four players who backed up Colli’s charges were suspended from the team. Instead of investigating the accusations, the SMU athletic department focused on investigating and discrediting Colli.

I noticed that in the most recent article about this situation all references to the lesbian content of Colli’s accusations have been deleted. Earlier news reports here indicated that Colli was a lesbian and that Rompola was specifically making anti-gay statements. The recent article only says that Rompola “constantly made sexually charged comments about the players' personal and intimate relationships” and asking them if they “had sex the night before.” I’m curious about why the specifically anti-lesbian nature of the accusations has been omitted. Of course, Rompola’s alleged comments would be completely offensive either way, but I’m just curious to see if future reports of this situation are “straightened up” as well.

Jennifer is currently pursuing a modeling career in California. You can google image her name and see some of her modeling. Maybe Jennifer has straightened up too. I'm just sayin'...

I’ll let you know as soon as I hear more about what happens next.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Review of Unmatched: Martina and Chris

Here is an excellent review of Unmatched, an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the friendship and tennis rivalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. I don’t know if ESPN will be airing this again, but it is worth checking your local listings if you missed it last week. It was a unique documentary in that it was as much about their relationship off the court as it was about their on-court rivalry. Of course, the two are intertwined so it is difficult to separate them. I loved that the documentary was actually a conversation between the two of them. It was two old friends taking a weekend in a beach house together to talk about old times (on camera, of course). They chatted over tea on comfortable couches, in the kitchen, while jogging together, walking on the beach. They hit a few tennis balls. They drove around in a cool Mercedes convertible. All the while sharing memories, sometimes their separate takes on the same event, sometimes observations on themselves and each other. These chats were interspersed with footage of their matches and still photos of each of them growing up.

They talked briefly about Martina’s coming out in 1981. Chris already knew and said she admired Martina’s honesty. Chris met her former husband, Andy Mill, through Martina. Andy and Chris even slept for the first time in Martina’s bed in Aspen. Chris shared that she and Martina had a double date once. I thought it was going to be a lesbian/straight date, but alas, it was Martina and Dino Martin with Chris and Desi Arnez. Martina shared that this was before she was sure what her sexuality was. It seems that Dino was quite attracted by Martina’s muscles, much to Chris’ chagrin since she was the one who though Dino was cute. Funny story.

It was also interesting to hear Chris talk about how hurt she was during the time that basketball player/analyst, Nancy Liebermann, was Martina’s coach (and lover). While Nancy did spur Martina to train on a level that took Martina’s game to a higher level, Nancy’s philosophy was that you needed to hate your opponent in order to beat them. Her insistence that Martina view Chris as an enemy broke up their doubles partnership. Her poisonous perspective threatened what would become a sports friendship for the ages. Let’s all be thankful that Chris and Martina’s friendship survived Nancy’s attempt to ruin it.

It was touching to hear them each say that the other is one of the first friends they contact when in crisis or when something important happens in their lives. Such an enduring friendship between two women who are so different from each other, yet so bonded and connected by their athletic careers reminds us what sports can be in addition to competition. It can be about relationships and how competition doesn’t need to be about winning at all costs, especially the cost of a friendship. Relationships among competitors, even at the top of their careers can spur each one to greater accomplishments and deeper understanding and appreciation for a rival.

Chris and Martina share experiences only the two of them can truly understand. Watching Unmatched, I felt privileged to be invited to share a glimpse of their apparent affection and respect for each other. Nancy Lieberman was wrong and I for one am thankful. I hope you get a chance to see this documentary.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Unmatched: Martina and Chris Rivalry

Tuesday night, September 14 at 8 pm EDT, ESPN will air a documentary entitled, Unmatched. The film follows the tennis rivalry and friendship between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. Martina and Chris discussed their relationship on and off the court for the first time. You can also read about their rivalry and friendship in an excellent book by Johnette Howard called The Rivals.

Martina and Chris represented two opposites both on and off the court. Martina was a serve and volley specialist with powerful strokes and a beautiful athleticism that was a joy to watch. She tended to be emotional and wore her heart on her tennis dress sleeve during matches. Chris was the cool baseline machine. She was steady, relentless, keeping her emotions below the surface. Martina is a lesbian who came out in 1981. Let me repeat that, 1981, when the only other woman who had come out was Billie Jean King and she did not come out voluntarily. In fact she denied that she was gay for years after.

Martina came out not long afterwards and they both paid the price in loss of commercial endorsements and popularity for a long time until the world caught up. Chris’ image was “the girl next door.” She had highly publicized relationships with Jimmy Connors and other well known male celebrities and athletes. Because her image was more sellable and more conventional, the feminine, heterosexual girl next door, she raked in the commercial endorsements. The truth was that the private Chris was a lot more x-rated than her public image, but the fans loved “Chrissy” as the tennis commentators insisted on calling her. Some media pundits called their rivalry, “Beauty and the Beast:” Martina, the gay muscular, powerhouse coached by the transgender former player Renee Richards vs. the demure self-contained, feminine Chrissy. It often seemed like the only ones rooting for Martina when they played were the lesbians scattered throughout the stadium. Martina was honored at the U.S. Open last week. It was a long time coming.

Off the court they were and remain close friends crossing sexuality, cultural and competitive boundaries. I have immense respect for both of them. I’m looking forward to hearing them talk about their relationship over the years. Check it out – Tuesday 8pm EDT ESPN.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

When Coaches Teach Bigotry in the Name of Christianity

Excuse me, but I thought the primary goal of coaching girls' or women’s basketball teams was, well, coaching basketball . That would not be the case for Jaye Collins, however. He is the coach of the Louisville Legends. The Legends are part of a network of independent girls basketball teams affiliated with Elite Basketball Family. EBF’s goal according to their web site is as follows: The EBF is a 501©3 non-profit organization designed to ensure the future success of hundreds of young ladies each year by giving them chances to earn college scholarships to play basketball.

But if you go to the Legends web site and click on the coaches tab, here is what Coach Collins has to say about his goal:

I started the Lady Legends program with the support of my wife, Kari, in hopes of encouraging young girls to be proud and secure in not being part of the lesbian and homosexual lifestyle which is so prevalent in woman's/girl's athletics. Many girls, as early as middle school, are being influenced or "tested", or converted and convinced that if they play sports, specifically basketball, they must be, should be, or need to be gay.

I believe that we should encourage girls to glorify God and please Jesus Christ in their decision making processes. I know this is not the socially accepted or politically correct perspective, but our goal is H.O.O.P.S.....Helping Others Obtain Personal Salvation.

If you go to the Legends home page, you find that it starts off with a Biblical quote in huge letters and then, secondarily, if you scroll down, features photos of team members and where they will be playing college ball.

I don’t know if independent teams like the Legends are governed by any rules or policies about either Christian proselytizing or anti-gay discrimination under the guise of coaching a girls’ basketball team so maybe what Coach Collins is doing is perfectly legal, but it isn’t right. Maybe it is a good thing that he is so completely transparent about his beliefs and his goals. Let the buyer beware, so to speak.

It just makes me sick and sad and angry that such ignorant propaganda can be so blatant and, apparently acceptable. And that young girls who play with the Legends are subjected to the coach’s religious and anti-gay rhetoric. Collins is teaching prejudice and fear under the guise of making girls basketball “safe” for straight, Christian girls. What about Legend players who are questioning their sexuality or who know they are gay? He is teaching them to hate and fear themselves. He is teaching them shame and denial. What happens to Legends players when they are recruited to play college ball and find that they have lesbian teammates or coaches whom they are expected to treat with respect? Will the example set by Coach Collins’ anti-gay and pro-Christian beliefs make it more difficult for Legends players to adjust to a team where player and coach diversity is valued and respected? Where lesbians are not assumed to be drooling child molesters or out to convert all their teammates to their “homosexual lifestyle?”

Coach Collins claims to be providing some kind of Christian refuge for basketball players from the “tests” they need to endure presumably from evil lesbian teammates and coaches who try to “convince or convert them” that they need to be gay to play women’s basketball. Clearly Coach Collins has a personal problem with lesbians in sport. This hysterical and bigoted perspective is an important reminder that homophobia is alive and well in girls and women’s sports, particularly basketball.

Far from being a principled or courageous stance, I believe what Coach Collins does is a kind of abuse of power wrapped up in self-righteous bigotry masked as Christian concern. Providing girls with opportunities to play basketball and get college scholarships is a terrific goal and volunteer coaches who are committed to working for young women in this way are to be applauded. However, coaches owe it to their team members to check their personal prejudices at the gym door and do the best they can to create a climate of respect and safety for every team member – gay, straight, Christian, Jew, atheist, black, white.

Many Christian coaches live their religious values without pushing them on their teams. Most lesbian coaches live their life without any thought of “converting” players. It is wrong for Christian and lesbian coaches to impose either their religion or their sexuality on their athletes. Both Christians and lesbians can be great coaches. Neither religious belief nor sexual orientation has much to do with being a good coach though (or a good basketball player either). Great coaching is about Xs and Os, but it is also so much more. It is about living your life with integrity and confronting prejudice and bigotry in any guise. It is about modeling and teaching athletes about self-respect and respect for people who are different from you. It is about confronting one’s own stereotypes to avoid passing them on to young women. It is not about conjuring up a lesbian bogeywoman and then claiming to protect your team from her. That’s working your own personal agenda and calling it coaching.