Monday, February 25, 2008

Anti-Gay Name-Calling is “Just A Good Laugh”?

Whenever I work with student-athletes on LGBT issues in sport, I do a short “stand up poll” at the beginning of the session where I ask several questions about their experiences with LGBT teammates, coaches and other LGBT-related topics. Typically, when I ask if anyone has heard anti-gay slurs or comments in the locker room, on the playing field or elsewhere in the athletic environment this school year, most of the room is standing. Next, I ask if anyone has heard coaches or teammates speak up to object to these anti-gay slurs. Typically, everyone sits down to indicate that they have not. Anti-gay slurs are an established, if not accepted, part of school athletic experience. Everyone hears them, but no one stops them.

That might change at Wartburg College in Waverly Iowa. Nicholas Yordi, the quarterback on the football team at Wartburg, was accused of shouting anti-gay slurs out the window of his residence hall room at a gay student passing by. The student contacted campus security and the Wartburg police were called in. Yordi was charged with disorderly conduct for shouting “abusive epithets likely to provoke a violent reaction from the victim.”

In court Yordi called himself “a dumb college kid” and testified that he yells at pedestrians for amusement, “Didn’t mean anything by it. Never have. Just getting a good laugh out of it.” Yordi’s attorney defended his client as “stupid,” “inappropriate” and “insensitive,” but not criminal. His motion to dismiss the charges was denied by the magistrate. The ruling will be made within 30 days and the penalty for a guilty verdict is up to 30 days in jail and a $625 fine.

We can argue about whether or not this case should be heard in a criminal court, but it seems clear that Yordi has not been served well by an athletic culture that accepts anti-gay slurs as just part of day to day interactions. When fans are allowed to target and taunt opposing players, like the University Of Oregon basketball fans taunted Kevin Love and when coaches and teammates use anti-gay slurs or are silent in response to them, young athletes like Nicholas Yordi learn that this is “just a good laugh.”

Whether defended as banter, teasing or taunting, the pervasiveness of anti-gay name-calling in athletics and the silence from school administrators and athletic leaders in response sends a powerful message of acceptance: It’s OK to call someone a “homo” or a “dyke.”

Many LGBT youth develop thick skin in response to the silence from coaches and teachers. I worry about the young people who cannot ignore these epithets so carelessly tossed about the locker room, screamed at opposing players in a game or shouted out dorm windows. Struggling in silence for their own sense of worth, these words don’t bounce off so easily. Do we care that they quit teams rather than endure the daily barrage of “anti-gay banter?” Do we care that they drop out of school or take their own lives? Equally important, do we take any responsibility for the festering homophobia among their straight teammates who think shouting “faggot” at passers-by is a good laugh?

Where did Nicholas Yordi get his “education” about the fun of anti-gay name-calling? If you are a coach, what are your athletes learning? If you are a parent, what are your children learning?

Monday, February 18, 2008

When Fans Cross the Line and Universities Are Weenies About It

On January 24 the University of Oregon men’s basketball team hosted UCLA. One of the UCLA players, freshman Kevin Love, is from Oregon, but chose UCLA, even though his father was a star player at Oregon. The student section, called the Pit Crew, were ready to let Kevin Love know how much they hated him, apparently for exercising his right not to attend the University of Oregon.

They started in on Kevin Love (and his mother and father, who were attending the game) from the warm ups and didn’t let up until the game was over and the court was empty. So what’s the big deal? Lots of college teams encourage the student sections to be loud and rowdy, wear crazy clothes, paint your face, wave towels behind the basket and yell things on foul shots, you know, the home court advantage.

The Pit Crew apparently outdid themselves. If their behavior had happened on the street outside the basketball arena, they probably would have been arrested for harassment, inciting violence, and spewing hate speech. They called Kevin Love a “pussy.” They called him a “bitch.” They called him a “faggot.” Repeatedly. They had long chants about his “sexual orientation” that were too vulgar to write in my blog. They held up signs with more insults and name-calling. They harassed his mother and father so much that they needed extra security to escort them out after the game.

It was disgraceful and disgusting. It was so far over the line that it came back around and went over it again. It was completely inexcusable behavior…and no one in any position of authority at the University of Oregon did anything to stop it. When asked after the game, one official cited free speech concerns as an excuse for the school’s complete failure of responsibility. Free speech. What a cheapening of the concept. This was not free speech. It was hate speech.

The Oregon AD did finally apologize to UCLA, Kevin Love and his family. He also spoke to fans before the next game about their behavior. Too little, too late, in my opinion, but it is a start.

Oregon isn’t the only school where this kind of bigotry masquerades as school spirit and team support during athletic competitions. It is high time that the NCAA, athletic conferences and individual schools step up, as they say, to make sure that this kind of insanity stops. Stop hiding behind “free speech.” Attending a basketball game is a privilege, not a right. Other fans (and their children) and all the players have rights too: The right to enjoy a game, be loud, have fun …without feeling like they need to shower immediately after leaving the game to wash the filth off.

By the way, UCLA won and Kevin Love had a double double. The victory must have been sweet.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Getting Loud and Being Proud at Cal-Berkeley

One of the enduring issues in women’s sports, at both the professional and collegiate levels, is the reluctance to acknowledge lesbian fans. Some teams, like the NY Liberty, have gone as far as add extra security when they got wind of an informal plan among lesbian fans to increase their visibility at games. A few years ago, the Sacramento monarchs, who routinely acknowledge community groups attending the game over the public address system, refused to acknowledge the attendance of a lesbian group because the word “Dyke” was part of their name.

It took the WNBA several years before some teams began to promote games in LGBT media and actively seek out lesbian fans at LGBT pride events and community gathering places. The LPGA still does not embrace the lavender ladies who line the fairways. Attend any women’s competition in most sports, however, and it is clear that lesbians and their families are enthusiastic and loyal sports fans. How could it be anything but homophobia to ignore a significant part of a sport’s fan base?

A few major league baseball teams have begun sponsoring “Gay Day” once during the season, but as far as I know no other men’s professional sports and no men’s collegiate sports have sponsored anything that acknowledges the presence of LGBT fans.

As far as women’s collegiate sports go, few schools make any serious attempts to attract or capitalize on support from the local lesbian and gay community. That is why the University of California women’s basketball game vs. the University of Arizona on February 16 is a real landmark. UC-Berkeley has declared this game “GLBT Pride Day” and, on their publicity poster for the day, they invite LGBT fans to “get loud and be proud.” The poster goes on to invite everyone to “join Cal Women’s Basketball in celebrating the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community and embracing our diversity.” The poster, complete with rainbow flags, is posted on the UC-Berkeley athletics ticket page on the Athletic Department web page. The event is also advertised in the Bay Area Reporter, the local LGBT newspaper.

I think this is a first in women’s collegiate basketball. If I’m wrong, I’d like to know where else schools are sponsoring LGBT Days and advertising the event on the Official Athletic Department web site. I’d love to give credit to all schools who are embracing their LGBT fans as Cal-Berkeley is. Here is a big shout out to Cal Women’s Basketball. If you live in the Bay area, I encourage you to go to the game and call the athletic department and Coach Boyle to let them know you appreciate this event.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Tell Me This is Not Happening

Michelle Stiles, a volunteer girls basketball coach at McKinley High School in Buffalo, NY, was dismissed because of unproven suspicions that she was having sexual relationships with one of her players. The school district superintendent admitted that he had no proof to back up the allegations and no formal investigation was ever conducted. Moreover, Stiles was never formally charged with a crime, even though sex with a minor is a criminal offense. Players on the team and their parents were never notified by the school about any allegations against Stiles. In fact, the players and parents support Stiles and are mystified by the charges. Stiles, who says she is not a lesbian, denies the allegations and is rightfully concerned about how the sex allegations and dismissal will affect her reputation.

It gets uglier. Jayvonna Kincannon, a captain of the basketball and soccer teams and, by all accounts, an excellent student, along with several of her teammates, was upset by Stiles’ dismissal. She used her cell phone during the school day, a violation of school rules, to try to get on the agenda for the school board meeting so the players could express their support for Stiles. The principal gave four of the girls “pending” suspensions for this breach of school rules. Jayvonna was suspended for five days and kicked off the basketball team. When she returned to school, an administrator told her she would be suspended for an additional six weeks; a penalty that violates state law because she was being punished twice for the same “offense.” Not to mention that a six week suspension for using a cell phone in school doesn’t seem quite fair. It seems more likely that Jayvonna was really punished for trying to speak up in defense of her coach.

So, Jayvonna not only cannot play ball, she has fallen behind in all of her school work because teachers have failed to provide her with the work she needed to keep up with what her classmates were doing during her suspension. She served five weeks of her suspension before school officials apparently figured out they were on shaky legal ground with their punishment.

It gets uglier still. Jayvonna was allowed back in school on the condition that she write a letter of apology to the school principal. Say what? It seems to me that the school owes Jayvonna the apology. Jayvonna and her grandmother and guardian agreed to this so that she could get back to school. The school administrators insisted on this little bit of hypocrisy, it seems, to try to save face, but they end up looking more defensive and incompetent.

The final twist to this sordid story is that the boys basketball, track and assistant football coach, James Daye, apparently had it in for Stiles. Stiles had questioned why Daye was spending time at the home of one of her players. She let the matter drop when she was assured that he was there to visit an adult cousin. Daye, according to the press reports, did not let the matter drop. Members of the girls’ basketball team claim that Daye has tried to intimidate them in school and has “warned” them that Stiles is a lesbian. Daye denies any part in Stiles’ dismissal.
The superintendent was quoted in a press conference, “Sometimes there are mistakes that are made. Sometimes we may not make the right decision.” Even using the third person weasel out, this is about the only thing school officials got right, it seems to me.

This story follows another one in a Missouri high school where six girls on the basketball team accused their male coach of sexual misconduct. In that case, school officials dismissed the charges without even talking to the young women who filed the complaints. The day after the coach was reinstated, the girls filed a lawsuit. The coach is back at school. The girls have been harassed in school and on the internet. Their parents have been harassed at work and some have been threatened with dismissal from their jobs for bringing the charges. Because the attorney for the girls is the wife of President of the University of Central Missouri, members of the community are now trying to get him removed from his position.

Look at these cases next to the FGCU situation, the Fresno State lawsuits and the University of North Carolina soccer coach’s sexual harassment case and there are some disturbing patterns:

• Calling a woman coach a lesbian is a popular strategy to try to discredit her, especially if she is protesting sex discrimination in sport or expressing concern about a male coach’s conduct
• Accusing a woman coach of sexual misconduct with one of her female players leads to her immediate dismissal even if the charges are not substantiated (or even investigated)
• A male coach accused of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct with female athletes is defended as a victim and the female accusers are portrayed as vengeful liars
• School administrators need some serious training about legal protocols to follow when sexual harassment and sexual misconduct charges are made, regardless of the gender or sexual orientation of the people involved
• Sexism and heterosexism are alive and well in schools

It seems we still have work to do.