Sunday, December 30, 2007

Top Seven LGBT Sports Stories of 2007

I decided it would be fun to look back over the year and identify some stories and people who have had an impact on LGBT issues in sport for good or ill. My criteria are pretty loose. Some of the stories were widely covered, others not so much, but all of them have had an impact on making sport a safer and more respectful place (or not) for LGBT people because they draw attention to homophobia in sport and the on-going work needed to make sure that everyone such be treated with respect in sport. Why seven instead of ten? Why not? Enjoy!

1. Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland Resigns: I swear I heard a coast to coast cheer of relief and joy when Rene Portland finally resigned last spring. This woman conducted an unrelenting lesbian witch hunt for over 20 years at Penn State but Jennifer Harris, the athlete who finally stood up to her bigotry with the help of the National Center for Lesbian Rights Sports Project, made it impossible for Portland to stay. Penn State women’s basketball had become a symbol of intolerance, hostility and arrogant defiance. I ranked this the number 1 LGBT sports story of 2007 because I think Portland’s resignation was a huge victory for fairness and respect in collegiate sport. The Penn State team has been competing under an ugly cloud for years. The team, under new coach, Coquese Washington, deserves a fresh start and I wish them well in 2008.

2. Ex-NBA player John Amaechi comes out: Because so few former male professional team sport athletes have come out (no active player has ever come out), this story got a lot of play in the media. Even though John was not a household name, his coming out brought important attention to homophobia in sport and he turned out to be a terrific, intelligent and willing spokesperson for social justice in sport. John is a terrific role model and inspiration to young athletes, gay and straight. His coming out also provoked Tim Hardaway’s public display of homophobia. In case anyone was under the impression that homophobia in sport is not a problem, Hardaway’s ignorant comments highlighted the need for education at all levels of sport.

3. LSU women’s basketball coach Pokey Chatman resigns after allegations that she had an “inappropriate” relationship with a player. Though Pokey never addressed the allegations publicly, her departure from LSU right before the NCAA tournament was widely covered by the press. Whether true or not, the allegations stir up all the old stereotypes of lesbian coaches as sexual threats to their players and make it more difficult for lesbian coaches to live openly and honestly with fear of negative recruiting or recrimination. As I said in my blog last spring, a sexual relationship between a coach and an athlete is not a lesbian issue, it is an ethical breach regardless of the sexual orientation of the people involved. The allegations against Chatman and her resignation feed the fears of parents and their daughters and make the work of challenging lesbian stereotypes in sport more difficult. This was a top LGBT story of 2007 we could have done without.

4. An out of court settlement is reached in the discrimination lawsuit brought by Jennifer Harris against Rene Portland and Penn State. Though most people I know were disappointed that Portland was not fired as part of the settlement, it turns out that her tenure at Penn State would only last a few weeks longer anyway. The confidential settlement cost Penn State more than money. The school’s reputation was damaged by months of negative publicity in response to their chicken-hearted wrist slap to Portland after their own internal investigation of the allegations found that she had indeed violated their discrimination policy. Nonetheless, the world can never be the same for other school administrators who choose to ignore or condone a coach’s personal prejudice. The lawsuit and settlement were a huge cautionary tale for other schools and let athletes who might encounter another coach like Portland know that you don’t have to take that kind of treatment anymore. Thanks to the NCLR Sports Project for taking on this ground-breaking case and seeing it through to the end.

5. Don Imus’ racist, sexist and homophobic comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team: Perhaps no other story on my list got more media attention than this one. Though the focus of outrage against Imus was on the racism and sexism embedded in his comments, they were also homophobic. I wish this had received more attention in the reactions to Imus’ comments, but silence on this point makes it clear that we must do a better job helping folks make the connections between sexism and homophobia. Even though Imus has returned to the airwaves, I hope that the controversy surrounding his comments has reset the boundaries for what passes as humor in the media when it is based on racist, sexist and homophobic attacks on women, women athletes or anyone targeted by so-called shock jocks. Hats off to Vivian Stringer and the Rutgers team for responding to the comments and media frenzy surrounding them with class and sophistication.

6. Jury awards former Fresno State women’s volleyball coach $5.8 million settlement in sex discrimination case: This case was a huge victory for Lindy Vivas, a successful coach who dared to challenge athletic department officials’ failure to enforce Title IX at Fresno. Vivas claimed that her treatment was retaliation for complaining about sex discrimination in the athletic department. For her audacity, Vivas was harassed and discriminated against based on “perceived sexual orientation” and then fired. Her case was the first of three sex discrimination cases successfully brought against Fresno State by women in the athletic department over the last six months. Vivas’ case was a landmark victory because the ruling protects coaches of women’s teams who point out sex discrimination in athletics from retaliation by spiteful administrators. It also highlighted the unethical use of the lesbian label to intimidate women coaches and administrators who challenge sex discrimination in athletics.

7. USTA names National Tennis Center after Billie Jean King: What a well deserved honor for the grand dame of tennis and women’s sport. A champion athlete and tireless advocate for human rights, Billie Jean King is a national icon who has transcended her athletic accomplishments to touch the hearts and minds of many people. She has also traveled a long journey from being yanked out of the closet kicking and denying by an ex-lover in 1981 to the self-affirming lesbian she is today. She is a courageous leader, a fierce advocate for social justice and a great role model for us all.

I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but these are the top LGBT sports stories of 2007 that I could remember. What do you think? Other ideas? Happy New Year! And remember…It takes a team, your team, to make sport safe for all (Lindsey, I had to say that just to give you a chuckle, but hokey as it is, I mean it).

Monday, December 17, 2007

What Do Glaciers and Women Coaches Have in Common?

They are both disappearing, according to the amazing Go To authorities on all things Title IX, Vivian Acosta and Linda Carpenter. In 1972 when Title IX was passed, 90% of the coaches for women’s teams were women. In 2007, women comprise about 40% of coaches for women’s collegiate teams. In the WNBA something like nine of the 14 teams are coached by men. That means that while women’s and girls’ participation in sports has been increasing steadily, the number of women coaching these teams has declined at a dramatic rate.

At the same time, the number of women coaching boys and men has always been miniscule and remains so. It’s apparent that, in terms of coaching opportunities, Title IX has had unanticipated negative results for women coaches. Men now coach about 99% of men’s teams and 60% of women’s teams.

So, the obvious question is why is this happening? I don’t think there is any one answer to the question. Many factors contribute to this situation. Part of the answer is that most decision-makers in athletics are men. When an athletic director needs to hire a coach, he often turns to the people he knows: Other men.

Because so many men now coach young women at the high school and community level, these young athletes tend to prefer men coaches. That’s what they know. They are often concerned that a woman coach will not be as knowledgeable or as tough or as successful. And so the gender imbalance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as young women themselves complicate the problem.

Other factors also are in play. Coaching requires a huge time commitment, in and out of season. Despite progress in equalizing the roles that women and men play in relationships, heterosexual women in relationships with men still carry the majority of the burden for home and family responsibilities. Men coaches have wives for this. The traditional story is that wives support their husbands and take care of home and family so he can focus on coaching. Men are rewarded for being driven and single-minded in their professional pursuits. We admire their leadership and aggressiveness. Women who display similar drive and ambition are still viewed with suspicion by a lot of folks. Bucking this perception takes a lot of energy.

Women coaches strap the baby on their backs and head off to practice, trying to remember to pick up some milk on the way home after practice and throw the laundry into the dryer before they go to bed. They worry about being seen as bad mothers and spouses even as they are rewarded for success as a coach. This is a lot of pressure that most men coaches do not need to deal with and accounts for why many heterosexual women leave coaching.

Of course, there are perks for being a heterosexual married woman coach too (or pretending to be). You get a lot of media attention paid to your heterosexuality and your motherhood. You get to have pictures of your family in the team media guide. This is a significant aspect of heterosexual privilege denied to lesbian coaches with families. Where heterosexual men and women coaches often highlight their marital status and children, the personal lives of lesbian coaches are a blank slate in media guides, which focus on their professional accomplishments (as it should be for all coaches, in my opinion).

Which leads me to another factor in understanding the disappearing woman coach – homophobia. Though I believe things are changing for the better, many parents and high school recruits still fear lesbian coaches or perceive them to be unacceptable leaders and mentors. This lingering stereotype prompts heterosexual women coaches to trumpet their heterosexual credentials in team media guides and use it as a recruiting tool to fend off worries about lesbian coaches. If you are an unethical recruiter, you can insinuate that the “family-friendly” environment on your team contrasts with the unsavory “lifestyle” issues rampant on the team of your biggest rival. Though this is no longer a guaranteed slam dunk with parents and high school athletes, negative recruiting like this still works far too often.

Too many heterosexual male athletic directors still believe that lesbian coaches (or women who look like what they think lesbians look like) or any woman who is not married to or engaged to a man poses an image problem for the program. What’s the best way to avoid dealing with the lesbian “problem?” Hire a man. Look at LSU. After the resignation of Pokey Chatman last year over allegations that she had an “inappropriate” relationship with a player, LSU hired Van Chancellor, who talks a lot about his family, even though he is about as far from being a lesbian coach as you can get. If you believe that lesbian coaches are a problem, what better way to reassure recruits and their parents that basketball players at LSU are safe again.

Athletic directors seem far less concerned with male coaches becoming sexually involved with their female athletes, even though these “inappropriate” relationships are rampant in women’s sports. The number of male coaches who start a relationship with an athlete and then marry her after she graduates is a real problem that has received far too little attention from athletic directors who are quick to dismiss any woman coach even on the suspicion that she has crossed the boundaries of acceptable coach-athlete relationships.

Put it all together and voila! - The disappearing woman coach. It will take some concerted efforts on the part of athletic leaders and women’s advocacy groups to address the sexism and homophobia that support the insidious and persistent myth that men are better and safer coaches than women. It would also be great if more lesbian (and gay) coaches felt they could be open about their lives and families. As long as homophobia in sport keeps them tightly locked in their closets, homophobia and sexism can be used against all women coaches. The only people who benefit from this deadening combination are heterosexual men who want to coach women.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Hurricane Brewing in Florida…And It Ain’t About the Weather

We might be calling Florida Gulf Coast University “Fresno East” soon. Over the last several months, Fresno State has lost two lawsuits to women coaches claiming sex discrimination and harassment. Juries in these cases awarded volleyball coach Lindy Vivas $4.8 million and Basketball coach Stacy Johnson-Klein $19.1 million (this is not a typo). Fresno also settled with former senior women’s athletic administrator Diane Milutinovich for $3.5 million in a similar discrimination case. In Vivas’ case, the lawsuit also included charges of discrimination based on her perceived sexual orientation. All three women had complained about sex discrimination in the athletic program.

It kind of makes me glad I am not a tax payer in California or an alum of Fresno. What a mess. What a disgrace.

FGCU was targeted with a Title IX complaint late last spring in which the only two women head coaches (out of 14 sports), a woman assistant coach and a former women’s athletic director claimed sex discrimination in the athletic program. What followed sure looks like an appalling case of massive retaliation against these women and the university’s female former general counsel. The athletic director and university officials claim otherwise, of course.

First, university general counsel, Wendy Morris, was dismissed after she claimed she was being intimidated by the interim university president over a disagreement about the Title IX complaint. An internal investigation found no Title IX violations.

Next, Holly Vaughn, women’s golf coach and Jaye Flood, women’s volleyball coach received poor job performance evaluations from the athletic department.

In early October, Vaughn resigned mid-season, saying cryptically, that she stayed as long as she could for the players, but she had done as much as she could at FGCU. A day later, Jaye Flood (the winningest coach in school history) was suspended for unspecified “student welfare issues.” Flood was very outspoken about her complaints of gender inequality in the FGCU athletic program. It was later revealed that the suspension was probably prompted because Flood allegedly grabbed a player’s shirt during practice. Flood claims she was never interviewed about the shirt grabbing claim. In November Flood was named the Atlantic Sun Conference Coach of the Year, but the university did not acknowledge it and the athletic director refused to comment on this omission.

Later in October, assistant softball coach, Gina Ramacci, was dismissed after being accused of having an “inappropriate relationship” with a student-athlete and “promoting” drug use on the team. Ramacci, who is gay, denied both charges and was later cleared on the promoting drug use charge. The university investigation concluded that the nature of the relationship with the student-athlete could not be defined, but that it was inappropriate (Huh?). Ramacci has filed a lawsuit claiming both Title IX and Title VII violations in her dismissal.

Can it be merely coincidence that, in the space of about two weeks, the only two women head coaches at FGCU and an assistant coach who all supported a Title IX complaint against the university are now gone amid unsubstantiated charges of unethical conduct and poor performance? I guess, but it stretches the imagination.

Situations like the ones at Fresno State and FGCU remind us all that sport, despite all the progress women have made as athletes and coaches, is still Guy World on many campuses and women who challenge sex discrimination in athletics must prepare for serious and vicious retaliation from male administrators who act with all the maturity (and sense of entitlement) of little boys trying to pull up the rope ladder to their private little tree fort to keep the girls out.

I sense a humongous legal and media headache coming on for FGCU. They better stock up on Excedrin and put Fresno State administrators on speed dial.