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).


E Leb said...

Just wanted to let you know about another great news story from 2007: Mills College succeeded in passing a national soccer rule change to protect collegiate student-athletes from harassment, specifically homophobic, racist, and sexist language, behavior and conduct.

In response to a collective effort of Mills student-athletes, coaches, athletic administrators, and senior officers, both the California Pacific Conference (NAIA) and the NCAA Soccer Rules Committee acted to make explicit the authority and expectation of officials to penalize those who engage in "hostile or abusive language or harassment that refers to race, religion, sex, sexual orientation or national origin, or other abusive, threatening or obscene language, behavior or conduct." A rule change like this will help reduce the yelling of well-known homophobic names at LGBT or LGBT-appearing athletes, as well as other hurtful and attacking language.

Thanks for your great blog, Pat!

Pat Griffin said...

Yes, we featured this new rule initiated by the folks at Mills on the It Takes A Team web site last year. IT's great other sport orgs are following suit. Thanks for the comment,el.

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