Sunday, January 30, 2011

When is “Family-Oriented” a Code for “We Are Lesbian-Free” in Women’s Sports?

Last week’s ESNP The Magazine article on negative recruiting in women’s basketball has gotten an interesting response from two gay men who are fans and friends of the Iowa State women’s basketball team and coach Bill Fennelly. Matt Schuler and Robert Alden, a married couple in Iowa (where same-sex marriage is legal), believe that Fennelly is unfairly portrayed in the ESPN article. Their experience with Fennelly and the women’s program is that lesbian and gay fans and players are welcome and comfortable on the team. I have no firsthand experience with the Iowa State women’s program so, if what Matt and Robert say is true, I am happy to know this.

However, the quotes in the ESPN article attributed to some Iowa players and recruits and to Bill Fennelly himself are definitely open to other interpretations. These excerpts in particular are problematic:

During one teen's big moment, a heart-to-heart with Iowa State's Bill Fennelly, the decorated coach of 23 years sang an insistent refrain. He kept drilling that 'this would be a family,'" says the player, who asked not to be named. "'You should come here,' he said, 'because we're family-oriented.'"
To the recruit, those seemingly comforting words cloaked a deeper meaning. Two of the four schools she was considering were purported to employ lesbians on their staffs. Her stop in Ames, in fact, was on the heels of a trip to one of those allegedly "gay programs." There, coaches avoided discussing anyone's off-court lives. Iowa State, in contrast, pushed the personal hard. "They threw it out constantly," says the player, who became a Cyclone. "'Iowa has morals, and people who live here have values, wholesome values.'" The implication, to her and to another former Cyclone who confirmed her account, was that at other schools, "there's something going on you don't know."

The messaging continued after she joined the Iowa State squad and started to help recruit younger players. Coaches told all the Cyclones to emphasize their "environment" to any visiting recruits: married head coach, straight assistants, kids running underfoot. "Tell them we're family- oriented," the player recalls. "According to the coaches, it needed to be said."

Fennelly, on the other hand, says he pushes Iowa State's familial spirit because that's what he has to sell. It's all positive, and anyone who thinks otherwise is distorting what he and his school stand for. "I think what's happening," he says, "is, in an odd way, my staff is being penalized because they're married and have families." The coach, one of the few in the women's game willing to speak on the record about the subject, denies that he or any of his staff has ever used the term "wholesome" to recruit a player. But, Fennelly adds, "if using the word 'family' is viewed as negative recruiting, then we're guilty, because we say that. I don't think it's negative. Maybe I'm the only one in America who thinks that's ridiculous to say."

Negative recruiting is making disparaging comments about a rival school or team. Negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation is when coaches say things to recruits and their parents like, “You might not be aware of it but that other program you are interested in has ‘lifestyle issues’ you might not be comfortable with.” Or as Jennifer Harris’ parents reported that Rene Portland told them, “You can’t possibly be interested in that program and in Penn State. They date girls. Here we date boys.” The first is a little more subtle, but the message is the same: Lesbian coaches and athletes are a bad influence you want to avoid and you can do that by coming to my program.

Coaches’ use of code words like “family-oriented” to describe their own program can be an even more subtle use of homophobia in recruiting. It isn’t negative recruiting per se since the coach is not talking about another school’s team. However, when this tactic is employed intentionally as a way to signal to recruits and their parents that their daughter would be in a heterosexual and therefore “wholesome” lesbian-free environment it is unethical and discriminatory.

Does Bill Fennelly play up the heterosexual family status of the program’s coaches and the “family-oriented” atmosphere of his team as a way to intentionally send an anti-lesbian message to recruits and their parents? He claims he is just selling what he sees as his program’s strengths as any coach would do. According to Cyclone fans Matt and Robert Iowa State women’s basketball is a gay friendly program.

I hope they are right, but if the message that a coach is sending about his or her team cannot be differentiated from the messages sent by coaches who are intentionally selling their programs as heterosexual havens where young women would be safe from the evil lesbians in women’s basketball, how are we supposed to know that? Moreover, Fennelly’s apparent inability to see how his focus on family might be perceived as a problem reflects an incredible lack of understanding of homophobia in women’s sport and how he, as a heterosexual male coach, benefits from it, intentionally or not.

Part of the problem is that “family” is a term that has been hijacked by the Christian Right. When groups like “Focus on the Family” talk about family, we all know they have a very narrow definition that excludes the majority of familial groups that love and care for each other. If a coach wants to separate him or herself from the exclusionary and discriminatory code that “family-oriented” has become, let’s hear him or her do it. If they don’t and then make the preposterous claim of discrimination on the basis of having a heterosexual family and staff, how are we to trust that coach’s intentions?

Lesbian coaches have families. Single coaches, whether gay or straight, can create a “family-oriented” and “wholesome” team environment. A coach doesn’t need to be heterosexual and married to do that successfully (and lots of heterosexual married coaches can't do it worth a darn). The problem is that using your heterosexual married parental status as a recruiting tool in a culture where gay people and single people of any orientation are at a legal and social disadvantage is unfair. It is called heterosexual privilege. Claiming that being unable to use your heterosexual married status as a recruiting tool puts you at a disadvantage is insensitive at best and flat out homophobic at worst.

Here’s a suggestion: Coaches who want to talk about their teams as family certainly should be able to do that. It is a recruiting plus and a positive aspect of being on a team. Most of us who have sports experience know what it feels like to be part of a team we see as a second family. It’s a good thing. Thanks to the messaging monopoly of the anti-gay Christian Right, however, coaches who do not want to be seen as sending coded messages of heterosexuality and Christian “family values” need to send clear and intentional messages about what they mean by family: A group that embraces differences and uses that diversity as a team strength. A group in which teammates and coaches stand up for each other and treat each other with respect. A group in which everyone can count on receiving the support they need to be their best selves, on and off the basketball court. A group in which team members can bring all of who they are to the game in pursuit of excellence, regardless of their sexual orientation, religion, race, political views, and other ways we differ.

Now that’s a team I’d like to be part of. I’m betting it’s a team most young women, gay or straight, would like to be a part of too. Isn’t that a great positive recruiting message?

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Belmont University Adds “Sexual Orientation” to Non-Discrimination Policy, But Do They Mean It?

Yesterday, the President of Belmont University announced that the Board of Trustees has added “sexual orientation” to its non-discrimination policy. This could be good news for those who want Belmont to institutionalize a more progressive Christian perspective welcoming people of all sexual orientations. However, if the policy was adopted solely in response to pressure from high visibility financial supporters of the university, like Mike Curb, it remains to be seen if the university will back the policy with action to prohibit discrimination against LGBT employees and students.

In his announcement of the policy, President Fisher clings to the fantasy that Belmont has always welcomed LGBT people as part of the community. Somehow he makes this claim even though instances of discrimination against LGBT student groups and employees at Belmont are part of the public record.

In response to reporters’ questions, Fisher would not say whether the new policy meant that openly gay people could work at Belmont. "I would put that in the category of a hypothetical," he said.

This response does not bode well for the sincerity or effectiveness of the new Belmont policy. If a non-discrimination policy does not mean that gay people on campus can be open, what does it mean? That was the problem with soccer coach, Lisa Howe. She was tolerated as long as she did not talk about being a lesbian. As soon as she did come out, she was gone. It remains to be seen whether or not the new policy is anything more than an attempt to keep some big donors happy.

The gay student group has again applied for official school recognition. They have been turned down twice. Will the new policy have any effect on the school’s decision to recognize the group this time? We’ll see.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Negative Recruiting in Women's Basketball

Here is an excellent story on negative recruiting based on sexual orientation in women's basketball. Geno Auriemma and Bill Fennelly demonstrate a particularly tone deaf understanding of how homophobia affects women coaches and women's basketball. Geno, in his typical over the top way, also suggests that anyone who thinks that the "focus on family" used by coaches in recruiting needs to be toned down should "go shoot themselves in the head." Thanks, Geno, for this wildly inappropriate and violent suggestion given the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords less than two weeks ago. Think before you speak for once. Oh, and Geno is president of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. Isn't that special. It seems to me that the president of the WBCA should have a more in-depth understanding of negative recruiting and a lot more class in discussing it in the media.

Bill Fennelly has the cajones to suggest that he is at a recruiting disadvantage because he and his assistant coaches are all straight, married and have children. Really? Poor Bill. What planet does he coach on? Breathtaking male and heterosexual privilege in action on the part of Geno and Bill.

Geno and Bill notwithstanding, the article is excellent. Thanks to ESPN for an in-depth and thoughtful piece on a persistent and unethical practice among coaches in women's sports.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

LZ Granderson on Gay Pro Male Athletes Coming Out and More

Check out this podcast with ESPN columnists Bill Simmons and LZ Granderson. They talk about gay male pro athletes coming out, out gay actors and lesbians in the WNBA (just a little). It’s a thoughtful conversation about coming out and beyond. LZ teaches Bill what it is. It is worth a listen to hear the wisdom of LZ Granderson on a range of gay sport-related topics. Soooooo glad LZ plays for my team!

About 29 minutes in they broaden the conversation to talk about men’s sports in general, just so you know.

Monday, January 10, 2011

New Gay High School Athlete Blog

On the heels of the bad news in my previous post, I wanted to make note of some good news on the high school sports front. Three gay high school athletes from three different parts of the country have initiated a blog to share some of their experiences and provide support for other high school athletes.

Thank you, Ben Robert and Brad, for your courage and your openness. I have no doubt that your blog will be a source of inspiration and hope for many other LGBTQ student-athletes and their friends.

Let's here it for the younger generation leading the way to change.

Thanks to Jim and Cyd at Outsports, where I learned about this blog.

When Coaches Bully (Part 2)

On December 22 I briefly noted a lawsuit in Kilgore, TX in which the mother of a lesbian high school softball player (identified as S.W. in the lawsuit) is suing the Kilgore Independent School District, the athletic director, the head softball coach and the assistant softball coach for violating her daughter’s privacy by revealing her sexual orientation to her. Believe me, that’s just the start of the problems in the Kilgore school district.

Here is what the lawsuit alleges: Somehow the two coaches found out that S.W. was dating another girl. They also believed that the S.W. was telling other students that the head softball coach, Cassie Newell , had dated the same 18 year old girl that S.W. was.

The two coaches called a fake team meeting (Serious judgment error 1). When the team arrived, everyone was dismissed except S.W. who was locked in the locker room with the two coaches (Serious judgment error 2). The two coaches proceeded to bully, interrogate and threaten S.W. (Serious judgment error 3). They accused her of being a lesbian (as if it is any of their business and as if there is something wrong with that). They confronted her about gossiping about her girlfriend being involved with the Newell, the head coach, which S.W. denied. They threatened to sue her for slander. They called S.W.’s mother and told her to come to the softball field (serious judgment error 4) where the two coaches and S.W. met her and the coaches told the mother that S.W. is a lesbian (major serious judgment error 5). S.W. was subsequently kicked off the softball team (Serious judgment error 6 and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation).

Her mother contacted the school principal and athletic director and went through the school grievance process but the coaches’ actions were backed up by the school administrators at every step (Unexplainable decision to support serious judgment errors 1-6 and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation). So, now the Kilgore school district, the coaches and the athletic director are facing a lawsuit.

Among the serious questions this situation raises is how administrators can possibly come to the position that it is acceptable school policy to violate a student’s privacy by outing her to her mother when there is no rationale for this decision other than to create possible problems for the student? Likewise, how can they decide to support educators (and I use the term loosely in this case) who engage in intimidating and threatening behavior that rivals any student-initiated psychological bullying I know of. It was probably worse since it was coming from adults that S.W. probably respected and trusted. As I have said before, what is it that leads some high school and college coaches to believe that they are somehow exempt from standards of conduct with students that we expect of other educators? This is another example of coaches abusing power and seriously damaging a student’s well-being, not to mention her opportunity to enjoy sports.

This kind of treatment cannot be justified under any circumstances that I can think of. It is reprehensible and the injury is compounded by the school district’s support of the coaches’ behavior. If I had a child in the Kilgore School District, I would be seriously worried about the safety of my child if adults in that school are entitled to treat students like this. I don’t know or care if coach Newell is gay. Her actions in this situation, if accurately described in the lawsuit, make her unfit to work with young people, in my opinion. That Kilgore Independent School District supports her is equally indefensible.

Some schools and coaches have to learn about respect and fairness the hard way. Being enmeshed in an ugly lawsuit is a tough way to learn, but thankfully, legal advocacy groups are available in Texas to make sure that they do.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Athletes as Allies in Fighting Homophobia in Sport

Hudson Taylor was a wrestler at the University of Maryland, now an assistant wrestling coach at Columbia University. He received lots of attention last year when he competed with the Human Rights Campaign Equal logo on his headgear. Hudson is also a straight man who is committed to making sports a respectful and welcoming place for LGBTQ athletes and coaches. He works with me as an advisory group member of the GLSEN Sports Project (to be officially launched this winter). I met Hudson in December at the first advisory group meeting where I learned first hand about Hudson’s commitment to eliminating discrimination against LGBTQ people in and out of sport. Plus we are both Maryland alums. Go Terps!

Hudson has initiated AthleteAlly, a web site and YouTube channel that invites people to make a pledge to help eliminate homophobia in sport. I encourage you to go to the web site and make a pledge. Hudson’s web site is a great way for anyone affiliated with athletics (coaches, athletes, parents, fans and others) to make a public commitment to make their schools and teams welcoming places for all. Check it out.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Reggie Bush Rejects "No Homo"

New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush has joined a small, but growing number of male professional athletes who are speaking out about gay issues. In Reggie’s case, he tweeted a question to his followers: "If someone says 'no homo,' is that offensive towards gay people?" Then followed up later by tweeting: "I think if the 'no homo' comment offends anybody then it's most likely better left unsaid along with other degrading words ... thanks guys!"

If you have no idea what “no homo” is all about, you can read my November 9, 2009 blog to catch up.

The point is that Reggie asked a thoughtful question, got some replies and made a decision to come down on the side of respect. It might seem to some folks like a small step to take: making a public declaration about choosing not to use language that LGBTQ people and our friends find offensive. However, imagine how it would change a locker room, a school, a workplace if everyone in it made the same decision. I don’t want to appear overdramatic, but it literally can save lives.

When a high profile athlete, like Reggie Bush, chooses to take a public stand, it matters because, whether they or we like or not, thousands of young people look up to them, copy them, want to be like them. One Reggie Bush standing up publicly equals about 100 people like me standing up and saying the same thing. Look at the press this one little tweet sparked.

We are facing an epidemic of suicides by young people in schools who were bullied by peers using anti-gay slurs and more. High visibility athletes, both men and women, send important messages whether by their silence, their casual use of anti-gay slurs or by their intentional decision to speak out for LGBTQ rights and against anti-gay name-calling and bullying.

I am a Patriots fan, but because of Reggie, I think I’ll also be rooting for the Saints this post season. Tom Brady, where are you on this issue?