Thursday, April 26, 2007

Reflecting on Rutgers Women’s Basketball and Don Imus

I am happy to say that I was wrong about the fallout from Don Imus’ comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. I didn’t believe that there would be any serious consequences for Imus other than his two week suspension. Boy, was I wrong and happily so. He finally crossed a line that even the American public, numbed by years of hostile and demeaning radio talk, wouldn’t tolerate. We spoke up and Imus’ commercial sponsors and finally CBS and MSNBC heard us.

Though much of the outcry was about the racism embedded in his comments, Imus’s rant was also sexist. I wonder if there would have been such an outcry if he had called the women from Rutgers some sexist name that wasn’t as racialized as the one he used (I won’t repeat it. We’ve all heard it enough).

Little media attention was paid to the homophobia also embedded in Imus’ comments. Calling the team “tough” and comparing them to professional men’s basketball teams is only thinly veiled homophobia. Calling women “tough” and “masculine” or “like men” is a time honored attempt to intimidate strong women. He didn’t call them “dykes” but the implication was there. Describing the Tennessee team as “cute” in contrast also revealed the expectation that women athletes must be sexy and appealing to men in order to receive their approval as athletes.

I wonder if the public outcry would have been as loud if Imus had only called the Rutgers team “tough” or “mannish” without the racialized slurs. I don’t know. I’m skeptical. Yet, Tim Hardaway paid a similar price for his anti-gay rant. Maybe our tolerance for all kinds of public mean-spirited putdowns whether racist, sexist or homophobic has run out. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Sad Tale of Don Imus: Racism and Sexism as Entertainment

We all knew Don Imus is an idiot. This not the first time he has made offensive racial, sexual or homophobic comments on the air. Since his sponsors and MSNBC have not had a problem with his “jokes” and listeners apparently have not been offended by his “humor” why would he think it was a problem to call the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” and “rough girls with tattoos?”

His comments are reprehensible and, in my opinion, he should be fired. He expressed no remorse at all until it became clear that this would not just blow over. Then suddenly he is all sorry and telling us, “I’m not a racist.” Well, what would you call it, Don? On what planet is calling a largely black women’s team coached by a black woman coach “nappy-headed hos” not racist AND sexist.

I am so sick of people spouting racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-semitic crap and then making non-apologies (“I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”) and/or going off to rehab for a few days and thinking it is all ok. This is so much bigger and deeper than most of us have the courage to admit.

It’s our fault, you know. We tolerate this bigotry out of apathy, helplessness, or whatever else keeps us silent and so it goes on. Imus will be suspended for two weeks and then be back no doubt to treat us to more of his ignorant rants. His corporate sponsors will revel in the added attention to his show (they have no social conscience unless it makes more money for them). MSNBC will disavow his comments. Yada, Yada Yada.

Every one of us who care about social justice in or out of women’s sports should be in their face about this incident and every other time it happens. If we aren’t, we are complicit in tolerating racism, sexism and homophobia and should not be eternally surprised when it happens again and again.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Reaching Across the Divide: Religion and Sexuality in Sport

I’m writing to you from Cleveland today. I’m a little foggy this morning because I was up late at the semi-final games last night and then, of course, there were the post-game discussions that went far too late for me. I love women’s college basketball and, even though my Maryland Terps didn’t make it this far this year, there is still plenty to get excited about and look forward to for the final game between Tennessee and Rutgers.

There is a work aspect to my stay in Cleveland too. What a job! Being It Takes A Team! Director means I get to come to Cleveland for the Women’s Final Four. How cool is that? It is the work aspect that I really wanted to blog about this morning. The Women’s Sports Foundation had a booth in the exhibit area for the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association convention that meets each year in conjunction with the Final Four. It Takes a Team! has our materials and information at the WSF booth. So, I spend some time in the exhibit hall. At some point, I always cruise by all the other booths looking for free stuff for my partner. She’s a high school physical education teacher and uses this free swag as prizes and motivational tools in her classes.

In years past I’ve always stopped by the booths for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and Athletes In Action (AIA) to pick up some of their brochures. In doing so, I usually feel like some kind of undercover agent looking for the enemy’s anti-gay propaganda. I’ve visited their web sites and read the stories they post there about young female athletes which usually go something like this: “I got really close to a teammate and then found myself in a sexual relationship with her. It was wonderful and intriguing, but something was missing and then it became abusive and addictive so I turned to God, made new Christian friends, left that sinful lesbian “lifestyle” and lived happily ever after with my husband in a truly fulfilling relationship that was meant to be.”

I know that FCA and AIA take the perspective that homosexuality is a sin and that homosexual relationships are inherently dissatisfying and not part of God’s plan. I, on the other hand, am an out lesbian who loves my life, feels quite fulfilled in it and am an outspoken advocate for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in and out of sport. It has always been difficult for me to see how the divide between someone like me and organizations like FCA and AIA could be bridged. At past conventions, I’ve never stopped to talk to the people at the FCA and AIA booths. I just grab and go.

This year I tried something different. I stopped and talked to one of the women at the AIA booth. I told her about It Takes A Team! and our mission to make sports safe and respectful for LGBT people. I asked if she would be interested in talking with me. I told her I knew we had different perspectives on homosexuality and I was curious to see if we could find any common ground. She was interested in having this conversation and also invited a woman from FCA to join us. We went out to the concessions area, found three chairs in a quiet place and started talking.

In summary, it was an amazing conversation. It was respectful. It was honest. We do disagree on a lot, but the hopeful part for me was that we also found many areas of common ground. We named the fundamental differences in our perspectives, but did not let them become barriers in our talk. We did not try to persuade each other to our differing points of view. We just acknowledged our differences and moved on. I was pleased to find that we have many potential areas of agreement too: All three of us believe in the importance of creating a climate in athletics where everyone is treated with respect regardless of religion or sexuality. We agreed that sexual or religious harassment, imposing sexual or religious beliefs on others or pressuring others to adopt sexual or religious beliefs are wrong. We learned that all three of us, them as Christians and me as a lesbian, feel targeted or silenced in athletics. We agreed that unwanted “recruitment” by Christians and lesbians or gay men is not acceptable.

We agreed that many situations that get framed as “lesbian issues” or “Christian issues” are really coaching ethics issues and that it is more productive if we look at them through this broader lens. For example, coaches abusing their power by becoming sexually involved with their athletes or coaches who impose their religious beliefs on their teams should be viewed as coaching ethics situations, not lesbian issues or Christian issues.

We discussed the challenges of lesbians and gay or Christian coaches who do abuse their power and how we do not want their behavior generalized to all Christians or all lesbians and gay men.

At the end of our conversation, we all felt excited by the bridge we were building and the possibilities for collaboration in a new and even revolutionary way. One of them suggested that we should jointly plan a session for next year’s coaches’ convention where we would replicate our goal of finding common ground and searching for ways to reach across that gap that encourages us to focus on our differences rather than our agreements.

I left the conversations hopeful that we might be able to find ways for coaches and athletes to participate together with respect and dignity, agreeing to disagree where we cannot find common ground, but seeking out the common humanity we share and the common passion for sports that brought us together in the first place. What do you think about this?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Women’s Basketball Coaches Need to Step Up Against Homophobia

I’ve been reading the latest news stories about Pokey Chatman’s resignation and noticing that the theme of many of these articles is now – How much will women’s basketball be hurt by Chatman’s apparent breach of coaching ethics? A few coaches are speaking on the record, some are speaking anonymously about this and the consensus seems to be that the story is a set back, but not a major one in the long run. We would not be having this conversation if the coach in question was a man. The concerns expressed by the coaches are focused on how Chatman’s resignation perpetuates the stereotype that women basketball coaches and players are lesbians, not on the apparent coaching ethics breach. I’d like to see more coaches focusing on this as a coaching ethics problem, not a lesbian problem. How does it damage women’s basketball when any coach abuses her or his position of leadership?

Contrast this with coaches’ response to the Penn State discrimination case. I don’t remember any similar questions being asked when we first learned about Jen Harris’ discrimination case against former Penn State coach Rene Portland. There was not a single story on how a homophobic coach might damage the reputation of women’s basketball. My bet is that most coaches, like most of the world, knew about Portland’s “no lesbian” policy for her teams. With the exception of the Big 10 coaches, the conference in which Penn State plays, women’s coaches refused to comment on the situation. Early on, the Big 10 coaches issued a statement of support for Portland! Even Virginia coach, Debbie Ryan, whom Harris claimed was targeted by Portland’s negative recruiting efforts, expressed disbelief and support for Portland.

The silence is deafening from the women’s basketball coaching community about the problems caused by coaches who discriminate against lesbian players or who negatively recruit against lesbian coaches. Though it was prudent for coaches not to comment on the specifics of the Penn State case, a broad statement against discrimination against lesbians would have been appropriate and was conspicuously absent.

What this contrast in response confirms for me is that we still have a long way to go within the women’s coaching community in overcoming the fears they have about the lesbian bogeywoman whose image still casts a long shadow over women’s sports. How does it set back women’s sports when coaches are not willing to speak out against discrimination against lesbians, but are willing to speak out about the damage they fear lesbian stereotypes do to women’s basketball? It seems to be that it keeps us all going around in circles going nowhere.

Reflections on Different Generations of Gay Athletes

On Friday morning I flew to Atlanta because It Takes A Team was co-sponsoring (with the Human Rights Campaign) a media panel of gay athletes to coincide with the Men’s Final Four. The panelists were Dave Kopay, ex-NFL player (and the godfather of all gay ex-professional athletes); Esera Tuoalo, ex-NFL player; Billy Bean, ex-MLB player; John Amaechi, ex-NBA player; Joey Fisher, goalie for the University of Georgia men’s ice hockey team; Terri O’Connell transgender NASCAR racer; and me.

We had hoped to have lesbian professional athletes on the panel, but all of the high profile women we asked were busy on Olivia cruises, skiing in Europe, doing other speaking engagements and playing golf so it was up to me to represent a lesbian point of view. We hope to co-sponsor another panel in conjunction with a women’s sports event where the panelists will be lesbian professional athletes and coaches since this one was so skewed toward the men’s experiences and perspectives. LZ Granderson, out gay ESPN reporter, moderated the panel.

I had met Billy Bean and Dave Kopay before and it was great to see them. It was also great meeting Esera, John, Terri, Joey and LZ for the first time. I was struck by the sense of mission and purpose everyone on the panel had about making the sports world a better place for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes of the future. Some columnists have criticized these guys for cashing in on their celebrity by writing books and hitting the speakers’ circuit. What a cynical view. One of the poignant moments on the panel for me was when Esera told Dave that reading his book in 1976 saved Esera’s life. I believe that Dave, Esera, Billie and John, all of whom have written books about their experiences as gay professional athletes, are saving lives and offering hope and support for young people who are struggling to love themselves when they do not have the love and support of families and friends. They are also providing an opportunity for young heterosexual athletes to read, learn and challenge their own prejudices about gay teammates.

Then there is Joey Fisher. Joey represents a new generation of gay athletes. He is currently playing on the University of Georgia ice hockey team and he is out. His teammates support him, his family supports him and he is enjoying his collegiate athletic career. Isn’t this simple story the way it should be for all young people? You get to be yourself, enjoy the love of friends and family and play the sports you have a passion for. Joey’s experience reinforces my belief that we do not need a high profile professional male team sports star to come out to change the world. The younger generation of athletes is already doing that. It will be an evolutionary, not a revolutionary change. As they become coaches themselves or move from high school to collegiate to the professional ranks, they will take their attitudes and experiences with them.

We older folks have a lot to learn from them. At the same time, young gay and lesbian athletes also owe a big thank you to pioneers Dave Kopay, Esera Tuoalo, Billy Bean, John Amaechi, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Sheryl Swoopes, Rosie Jones and all the other professional athletes who have led the way. It was an inspiring day.

Religion and Sport: Not a Great Mix

This weekend, Tony Dungy, the coach of the Super Bowl Champion Indianapolis Colts, accepted an award from the Indiana Family Institute (IFI) as a “Friend of the Family. Dungy is very public about his Christian beliefs, speaking often with the media about them. The IFI is a conservative Christian political group affiliated with James Dobson’s national group, Focus on Family. FOF is the leading national Christian-based political group opposing legal protections for lesbian and gay people. Both FOF and, its state affiliate, IFI, are committed to passing federal and state bans on same-sex marriage and gay parent adoptions, as well as opposing laws that provide protection from discrimination and harassment based on sexual orientation. In accepting his award from the IFI, Dungy made it clear that he supports the anti-gay agenda of IFI and FOF. He described it as “the Lord’s way.”

I believe that everyone, Super Bowl winning coach or not, has the right to whatever religious beliefs they choose and to back whatever political causes they choose. This includes making public statements about those beliefs. It would be hypocritical to believe otherwise. If Dungy had instead said he supported marriage equality for all and appeared at a Human Rights Campaign banquet to accept a similar award, I’d be the first to congratulate his courage and willingness to speak out publicly.

The right of public figures in or out of sport to take public stands on controversial political issues is not at issue here. I don’t like his position on marriage equality, but he has a right to it. The problem is that there is no separation between Tony Dungy the man expressing his personal beliefs and Tony Dungy, the coach of an NFL team speaking as a representative of the Colts and the NFL.

In his speech, Dungy made a point of accepting his award “on behalf of his family and the Colts organization.” Publicity pictures for the banquet included pictures of Dungy in his Colts cap, jacket and shirt. I’m certain he is a good family man, but IFI chose Tony Dungy because he is a Super Bowl winning coach who espouses his Christianity in a very public way every chance he has and his appearance at their banquet could raise lots of money for them.

The NFL and the Colts organization have distanced themselves from Dungy’s views, but supported his right to his personal views. Why then is it ok for the IFI use publicity photos of Dungy wearing the Colts logo? Why is it ok for Dungy to accept his award “ on behalf of the Colts? Sports organizations have no trouble prohibiting athletes and coaches from wearing non-approved uniforms or accessories. If Tony Dungy is not speaking for the Colts and the NFL, why don’t they prohibit him from being pictured with Colts logos in IFI publicity photos and accepting his award “on behalf of the Colts?”

The mixing of sport and religion, specifically conservative Christianity, is a pervasive problem in high school and collegiate athletics as well as the pros. The blurring of the line between a coach’s right to his or her religious beliefs in an environment that is (or should be), a religion neutral space creates all kinds of pressures to conform or tolerate the imposition of a particular religion perspective. Professional team, college teams and high school teams, unless they are directly affiliated with a religious institution should be religion-neutral. It is encumbent on league leaders and sport governing organizations to enforce this neutrality with more than wishy-washy media statements about respecting the coach’s rights. What about the rights of others who do not share the coach’s views? What about Jewish team members? What about lesbian or gay team members? What about other Christians who do not share a coach’s anti-gay views? Who is protecting their rights?