Thursday, March 29, 2007

Eliminating Homophobia in Women’s Sport: A Step Forward and A Step Back

Two prominent women’s basketball coaches resign. One has a long history of allegations that she would not allow lesbians on her teams. One has, apparently, had a sexual relationship with a player who was on her team at the time. It was the right thing for both coaches to resign. Neither actions should be tolerated, but the potential effects of the two resignations on women’s basketball and women’s sport couldn’t be more different.

Portland was a coach who abused her power and flaunted university policy by institutionalizing anti-lesbian prejudice on her teams. Her departure from women’s basketball signals a new day when, I hope, this kind of bigotry will have consequences for the coaches who practice it and the schools who tolerate or support them. This is a victory in the battle against homophobia in women’s sport.

In the absence of information to the contrary, if the allegations are true, Chatman abused her power. In a world without homophobia, Chatman’s resignation, however, should not be about lesbians. No coach, gay and straight, men and women, should become sexually involved with the athletes on their teams. Period. End of story. This is not a lesbian issue.

Unfortunately, Chatman’s resignation will be about lesbians because homophobia is a huge issue in women’s sports. In the absence of openly lesbian coaches, her indiscretion takes on added significance that feeds fear and prejudice. As long as lesbian coaches must hide their personal lives to protect their professional ones, the lesbian label can be used against all women in sport and, especially against closeted lesbians. Chatman’s departure, I fear, is a set-back in the battle against homophobia in women’s sport.

Two coaches resign. One step forward. One step back.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A New Day for Penn State Women’s Basketball!

I just heard the news that Rene Portland, Penn State Women’s Basketball coach has resigned. I have hoped since the announcement of the settlement of the case former player, Jen Harris, brought against the University and Portland that this might happen. I speculated that this might part of the confidential settlement: That Rene would step down at the conclusion of this season. Penn State renewed Portland’s contract last year, right in the middle of the lawsuit, so this resignation was clearly not in her plans then. Whether her resignation was part of the settlement or not, the outcome is the same: A coach who has had her own anti-lesbian agenda is finally gone after 27 years..

I’d like to think that this is a new day for Penn State women’s basketball. The program has been under the shadow the lawsuit and the team has encountered protests at home and away games for the last two years (not to mention having sub-par records). As I wrote in an earlier post, the shadow of accusation and denial at Penn State would not go away until Portland did

What does this mean for the ongoing effort to eliminate discrimination against and harassment of lesbians (or women thought to be lesbians) in sport? After all, Rene Portland was not the only collegiate coach who does not tolerate lesbians on their teams. She was just the one who received the most attention for her views. I’ve always hoped that the entire Penn State mess would serve as a cautionary tale for other schools and coaches. I still hope it has, but when the settlement was first announced, it looked as though Portland would keep her job and that did not sit well with many people, including me.

Now I can hope that Portland’s resignation a month after the lawsuit was settled sends a message to all athletes who might find themselves in situations similar to Jen Harris: Discrimination and harassment can be successfully challenged through the legal system. Coaches who abuse their power and force their personal anti-gay prejudices on their teams will pay the price.

This news is a huge victory for fair play in women’s athletics. It was a long time coming, but come it did. Thank you, Jen Harris, for standing up and saying no. It took the courage of a young basketball player to lead the way. Thank you, NCLR for playing David to Penn State’s Goliath. It looks like the rock found its mark. Let the new day for women’s sports begin!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Life in the Coaching Closet

Imagine you are a very, very closeted lesbian college basketball coach. You coach at a Division I school and are ranked in the top 25 year after year. You come from a conservative religious family and they do not know you are gay. They would not accept a lesbian daughter.

You played ball for a top Division I school that went to the Final Four twice while you were on the team. As a player, you knew the unwritten rule at your school: Lesbians keep it on the down low or they are gone. Teammates knew who was gay, but no one talked about it. You and the other lesbians on the team were tolerated as long as you kept it to yourselves. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was the unwritten policy. Because you loved basketball and could not imagine your life without it, you did what you needed to do to protect your place on the team.

You watched your closeted lesbian coach carefully separate out her personal life from her coaching life. She never brought her partner to team social events, but you knew where she sat in the stands behind the bench at every game. You watched your coach erase everything about her personal life in the media guide and in interviews with the media. To the world she was single and driven. The message was that basketball was her life: She had no time to find a man or raise a family. She encouraged this reaction. It was all part of her cover.

But, of course, there were always suspicions about her, rumors whispered in the stands and innuendoes among the sports writers. Lesbian fans, citing their “gaydar,” claimed her as one of their own and waited impatiently for her to come out.

You heard rumors that coaches from other schools told high school recruits that your team was coached by a lesbian. In the cut throat world of Division I ball, playing on fears about lesbians was just another way to get the top recruits. Everyone knew about this “negative recruiting”, but nothing happened to the coaches who did it.

Then you graduated and spent a few years as an assistant coach in another Division I program. The head coach made it clear that he would fire any assistants who were lesbians. But you already knew how to hide. You had a good role model in your own coach and knew what you needed to do to negotiate life in the coaching closet. You dated a male friend a few times to throw the head coach off. You dressed carefully and kept your hair long to project a “hetero” image. You focused on basketball and avoided other lesbians who were too out or too careless about who knew about them.

Finally, with a glowing recommendation from your homophobic head coach in hand, you landed a head coaching job at a Division I school. You were treated like a rock star by the local and national media when your team rose quickly through the ranks to the top 10. Everywhere you went everyone knew who you were. You couldn’t eat in a restaurant without young girls and older folks asking for your autograph. Your name and picture were in the local news all the time. You had your own TV show every week to talk about the team. Your team played on national television regularly. You had a generous salary and everyone loved you. Your family was proud of you and your accomplishments.

You were relatively young so no one thought it was strange that you were not married. They understood the demands of Division I coaching. You knew how to lie smoothly or deflect questions about your personal life. You knew how to carefully separate your personal life from your coaching. You avoided social settings or places that might be associated with lesbians. You cut yourself off from old lesbian friends. You spent more and more time with basketball. You spent all your time with the team and your assistant coaches.

You knew that everything you had accomplished, all your success as a coach, the numerous national awards, your respected status in the community, the love of your family, your livelihood and career depended on your ability to keep up the charade of, if not heterosexuality, at least non-lesbianism.

This is just a story I made up. I’m not describing any particular coach, but I am describing the life of many closeted lesbian coaches. As you watch the NCAA tournament during the next two weeks, think about those coaches who have paid a terrible personal price for their coaching career and for the opportunity to succeed in a profession they love. Think about how it might be, how it should be, if more coaches associations, sport governing organizations and individual colleges and universities were commited to eliminating homophobia in sport.

Think about a day when the fear and shame, the prejudice and the stereotypes, and the harassment and discrimination of lesbians in sport are consigned to history where they belong. Think about a day when lesbian coaches do not live in fear of the accusation, exposure, and judgment that could ruin their careers. We are not there now. How long will it take?

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.

Friday, March 2, 2007

The Love that Dares Not Speak It’s Name Is Suddenly Quite A Chatterbox

Wow! What a series of news cycles the last few weeks for folks like me who try to keep up with LGBT sports issues in the news. My google alert box runneth over!

First, the Penn State women’s basketball anti-lesbian discrimination case was settled. Then ex-NBA player, John Amaechi came out as a gay man. Another ex-NBA player, Tim Hardaway, responding to a radio talk show question about John Amaechi, went off on an anti-gay tirade. This triggered another round of reactions in the media. NBA Commissioner, David Stern, dismissed Hardaway from his official duties at the NBA All-Star game and Hardaway lost his job with the CBA.

Somewhere in there Snickers ran a Super Bowl commercial with two straight men kissing over a candy bar and then freaking out about it. Amid all the celebration of two black NFL head coaches in the super bowl, we learned that Tony Dungy is a spokesperson for an anti-marriage equality organization in Indiana.

This week, it came to light that the new owners of the NBA Seattle Sonics and WNBA Seattle Storm also contributed a million dollars to a national right wing organization that opposes marriage equality for same-sex couples.

Is that enough to chew on, or what?

I find good news and bad news as I dig through all this.

The good news:
• The world of sport has too long been silent on the issue of anti-gay and lesbian harassment and discrimination. I firmly believe that all this media attention shining brightly on homophobia in sports is a good thing. For people who believe that this is an old problem no longer worthy of coverage (and there are some folks like this out there, believe it or not), it's hard to dismiss a star ex-professional athlete declaring that he “hates gay people” and that they should not be “in the world or in the United States” and definitely not in the locker room. For the rest of us, these news stories create opportunities to educate. When I work with collegiate student-athletes, current events like these bring immediacy to my message that captures their attention and gets them engaged in thinking and talking about what they and their teammates believe.
• When a professional athlete, even an ex-professional athlete, comes out, this is another great educational opportunity. Especially when the athletes, like Sheryl Swoopes and John Amaechi, are so committed to using their celebrity and coming out as a way to educate. Both Sheryl and John understand their positions as role models for young LGBT and straight people. They challenge destructive stereotypes of lesbians and gay men in sport and, in doing so, make it a little more difficult for college and high school coaches to get away with anti-gay harassment and discrimination.
• Which brings us to the Penn State discrimination case. The settlement was disappointing to many people who wanted Rene Portland to lose her job (I count myself among this group). However, the media attention was broad and squarely on the side of social justice in this case. Penn State and coach Portland came of this sad affair with a huge unsightly bigotry blemish on their reputations. The university paid, what I hope was, a big financial settlement to Jennifer Harris. Thus avoiding what many think would have been the further embarrassment of a parade of ex-Penn State players testifying to 20 years of Portland’s lesbian purges at a public trial. I believe this must be a cautionary tale for other universities about the risks they run when a coach is allowed to act on her personal prejudices in the name of the university.
• It was also good news that men like Commissioner Stern, coaches Doc Rivers and Isiah Thomas, players Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill and Charles Barkley all spoke out in support of gay players. These guys are role models too and their willingness to speak out sends a message that counters the hate and fear embodied in Hardaway’s rant. It didn’t hurt that Stern also dismissed Hardaway from his All-Star duties on behalf of the NBA. Like the Penn State case, you may not be able to change someone’s bigoted beliefs, but you can make them pay the price for acting on them.

And now the bad news:

• Though we have made progress, at least the issue of homophobia in women’s and men’s sport is on the table now, but talking about it also stirs up the bigots. It makes me cringe to think of some isolated young African-American teenaged Tim Hardaway fan struggling with his sexuality hearing what his idol had to say.
I have no illusions that Tim Hardaway is the only NBA player or professional athlete who hates gay people, but let’s hope others, seeing what happened to Hardaway, keep it to themselves.

• I don’t understand the difference between saying you hate gay people and putting your money and celebrity behind efforts to deny gay people the right to marry. Both actions reflect an underlying dismissal of gay people as fully human and entitled to respect and equality. Hardaway was roundly criticized and punished for his comments, but apparently it is ok with the NBA to have team owners who support political groups who advocate discrimination against gay people. It makes me uncomfortable when white gay people compare the gay rights movement to the Black civil rights movement, but I can’t help ask myself the question, “What if the Seattle owners were contributing to an organization whose goal was invalidation of inter-racial marriage?” Would the NBA have a different reaction?

If I had to choose which is more damaging, I’d definitely rather endure an individual bigot’s name-calling than have organized political organizations working to deny my rights. I know this is a touchy issue. People have the right to support whatever political groups they want to, just as fans can express their displeasure with team owners’ politics at the ticket office. Boycotts are as American as apple pie and can be an effective way to challenge large corporations’ politics. There’s much more to say about this. I’ll leave that for a later post.

That’s it for now. This blogging thing takes time. I’ve got other work to do. Talk to you, later.

When Professional Athletes Come Out: News or No News?

Over the last few years several ex-professional male athletes have come out publicly: MLB player, Billy Bean, NFL player, Esera Tuaolo and recently, NBA player, John Amaechi, On the women’s side, Sheryl Swoopes, a WNBA MVP and LPGA Hall of Famer, Rosie Jones came out late in their careers, but while they were still actively competing. The venerable Martina Navratilova competed as open lesbian for most of her career. Amelie Mauresmo is still competing in professional tennis and is at the top of her game.

A flurry of media attention and commentary follow each of these coming out announcements. Active players’ reactions range from stupid or bigoted to unfazed and supportive. Fans also weigh in with a similar range of hostility to admiration. As I have followed each of these coming out stories and the responses to them, I’ve noticed some themes that might be fun to explore a little more deeply.

Response 1 (To Sheryl Swoopes Coming Out): “This is not news. Everyone knows they are all lesbians anyway.”

Flat out: It’s ridiculous to say that it is not news when a star African-American athlete, arguably the best female basketball player in the world, comes out following an MVP year. It’s not as if there are huge numbers of openly lesbian professional athletes. This response also reflects a lack of understanding of how hostile the environment in women’s sports can be for lesbians. Look no further than Penn State and the women’s basketball coach Rene Portland for the most current example. For people who believe that women’s sports are a happy haven for lesbians, you only need to scratch the surface to find a persistent discomfort with openly lesbian coaches and athletes.

The word “lesbian” has a long history in women’s sport as a whispered innuendo, an accusation, a threat and a stereotype that is unfortunately alive and well. The smirking undertone of “everyone knows they are all lesbians anyway” is based on this history. In a homophobic sports world, the word “lesbian” is an epithet deployed to keep all women in their place, to warn high school recruits and their parents about the “immoral lifestyle” of rival coaches, to incite fears of sexual predation in the locker room and to dismiss unmarried women coaches with short hair cuts. This still happens. We are not talking about history here. Ask the three parents who wrote to me in the last two months looking for help because their lesbian daughters were being harassed by homophobic coaches.

When an actual lesbian athlete who is still competing does come out, it is definitely news. It is an act of courage and it challenges the scary myths about lesbians in sport. Lesbian athletes like Sheryl Swoopes, Rosie Jones, Martina Navratilova, Amelie Mauresmo and Billie Jean King have always been an integral part of women’s sport. Because fear of discrimination, harassment and public hostility has kept most lesbians locked tightly in the closet, the myths about them have thrived. The more lesbian athletes and coaches who come out, the more difficult it will be to sustain the myth of the lesbian bogeywoman that has haunted women’s sports. As more heterosexual women in sport understand how the lesbian label is used to intimidate them and limit all women’s sport as well as to discriminate against lesbians, the less power the lesbian stereotype will have.

Response 1A (Closely follows Response 1): “It will only be newsworthy when a male professional athlete comes out.”

This is just another version of “women’s sports don’t matter.” It reflects the perspective that important things only occur in men’s sports. Women’s sports are dismissed as unimportant, even when it comes to lesbian athletes coming out. True, anti-gay hostility manifests itself differently in men’s and women’s sports. It’s also true that there are no openly gay male professional athletes. However, it really makes me angry when male sports writers (and even some gay male sports advocates) discount the significance of lesbian athletes coming out because they cannot see beyond their own sexist sports perspectives.

Response 2: (On speculations about why there are no active male professional team sport athletes who are out) “The climate on men’s professional team sports is too hostile for a gay man to come out while he is still actively competing.”

This response has been accepted as common wisdom for way too long. Even gay former pro athletes like Billy Bean and Esera Tuaolo have expressed this view. Some straight athletes like Lebron James, Tim Hardaway, Garrison Hearst and Jeremy Shockey have publicly expressed their hostility to having gay teammates and I am sure there are others who share this perspective. However, I believe that increasing numbers of professional team sport athletes, coaches and league commissioners do not agree with these knuckleheads. Most of the response to ex-NBA player John Amaechi’s coming out is much more positive. NBA Commissioner David Stern, Boston Celtic coach Doc Rivers, New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas and NBA player Grant Hill and ex-player Charles Barkley applauded Amaechi for coming out and expressed their support and acceptance for gay athletes. These attitudes are the future of professional men’s sports. Hardaway and company are the past. I just don’t believe it is helpful to keep harping on how it would be impossible for a gay man to come out while still competing. Get over it, grow up, move into the 21st century.

Here is some more evidence that the times they are a changin’ - The NFL invited Esera Tuaolo to speak to NFL rookies this year. The San Francisco Giants hired a diversity consultant to work with players after a homophobic team training video came to light. Two years ago members of the Boston Red Sox appeared on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”. Cincinnati Reds pitcher Joe Valentine publicly honored his two mothers. Star pro athletes like Johnny Damon, Mike Mussina and Shaquille O’Neal express their support for having gay teammates.

Of course, there will always be a minority of jerks like Hardaway or Shockey, but times are changing, even in the testosterone fueled macho world of men’s professional team sports. The days are past when male pro athletes can glibly call anyone they don’t like or don’t respect a “faggot” or proclaim their hatred of gay people without public censure. Comments like these sound more and more extreme and the guys making them look like the bozos they are. This is a good thing.

Response 3: “It isn’t the hostility in the locker room that keeps gay male athletes in the closet; it is fear of hostile fan reaction.”

Frank DeFord made this point in an NPR editorial recently. He claimed that the prospect of facing boozed up idiots in the stands hurling anti-gay epithets at an openly gay athlete every time he makes an error, drops a pass or misses a bucket is the real reason gay athletes wait until they retire to come out. He may have a point. The first few pro male athletes to come out while still playing probably will have to endure some fan taunting, hostility and even threats. However, a 2005 NBC/USA Network poll indicates that this fan reaction might be less common than DeFord thinks. Seventy-six percent of respondents disagreed with the statement, “I would be less of a fan of a particular athlete if I knew that he or she was gay.” Eighty-six percent of respondents agreed with the statement, “It is ok for male athletes to participate in sports even if they are openly gay.” These poll results indicate that, though a minority of fans are not yet willing to accept a gay male professional athlete, a clear majority are. This is good news.

Response 4: (Following a retired gay male professional team sports athlete coming out): “This isn’t news. Things will only begin to change when an active gay male team sport athlete comes out, especially if that athlete is a star player.”

I was most surprised at ESPN columnist, LZ Granderson’s reaction to John Amaechi’s coming out. Granderson is gay himself, so I expected more. His dismissal of “another ex-athlete” coming out and writing a book about his experience ignores the importance of any male pro athlete coming out, even retired ones. We are still talking courageous pioneers when we can count the number of out gay male professional ex-athletes on one hand. Visible out gay athletes are important role models. They embody possibility, hope and courage, especially to closeted boys and young men who struggle to feel good about themselves in the face of hostility in their schools and families. It isn’t just about a book deal, LZ, it’s also about saving lives.

There is no doubt that having a star NBA, NFL, NHL or MLB player come out would be a gigantic media event and would probably shock many fans and some players (I suspect many athletes already know who is gay and just don’t talk about it). Homophobic sports fans would be presented with a huge contradiction: a guy who has demonstrated his competitive toughness and attained the highest levels of achievement in the macho world of men’s sports – a guy whose jersey and number fans proudly wear - is gay. I can’t wait. Deal with it.

However, I do not agree that having a star male pro athlete come out is what it will take to begin to eliminate homophobia in men’s sports. I believe change is already happening and is coming, not from the top, but from the grass roots. High school and college gay athletes are leading the way out of the closet, not the pros. Athletes like high school football captain, Corey Johnson, Dartmouth All-American lacrosse goalie, Andy Goldstein and many other anonymous players are already competing as out gay men. Their teammates and coaches, for the most part, have absorbed this information and moved on. This support from coaches, teammates, and families is what will eventually drive the remaining Tim Hardaways of men’s pro sports to the bigotry closet where they belong. This trend in men’s sports is more significant and changes athletics more than one star pro athlete coming out ever could, no matter how visible he is. The young men playing in high schools and colleges with and against gay athletes are the future pro athletes, sports fans, fathers and coaches. As they move into these roles, men’s sports will change. Maybe change will not happen as soon as I want it to, but it has already begun. The challenge now is for current professional athletes to keep up.