Monday, March 31, 2008

A Pregnant Pause on the Way to Tampa

I’m a University of Maryland grad and a big women’s college basketball fan so that means I’m pretty darned excited about the Terps playing in the NCAA tournament. They had a great game on Saturday (finally) after looking a little raggedity in the first two wins. On to the Elite Eight tonight against Stanford.

If you are a women’s basketball fan, it would be impossible not to know that Maryland Coach Brenda Frese spent most of the season pregnant with twins. They were finally born five and a half weeks ago so Brenda is back on the sideline coaching the team.

I bet you are wondering where I am going with this. Patience, please.

During the Maryland game with Vanderbilt on Saturday, the male commentator ( I can’t remember his name) seemed to me to be obsessed with the idea that Brenda was actually back coaching after giving birth to twins 5 ½ weeks ago. I have never given birth to one baby let along two at once, so it is conceivable that I have no idea what I am talking about, but it seems to me that Brenda is probably a lot more comfortable now. I bet she is much more able to concentrate on coaching than when she was still carrying the twins and sitting on the sidelines in an office chair looking like a very uncomfortable Joba the Hut. Now that must have been difficult. From the comments of this guy, you’d think Brenda had made a miraculous recovery from a life-threatening disease.

In addition to his nattering on about how amazing it was that Brenda could stand, walk, shout instructions to the team for the whole entire game, we saw footage of Brenda telling the team she was pregnant, shots of Brenda and her husband bottle-feeding the twins, shots of Maryland players holding the twins and her husband watching the game and also an interview in which he raved about how wonderful a mom Brenda is.

I think it is great that Brenda Frese is married and gave birth to the twin boys during the season and that she is now back on the sidelines to coach the team during the tournament. I think it is wonderful that her husband is supportive of her as a coach and a mother. I love it when we get personal profile stories about coaches and players and their lives off the court. I do wonder if there would be the same whoop-dee-do if a male coach became a new parent during the season. If we would see stories about him and his wife feeding the babies, the players holding the babies. Maybe we would. I’m just wondering.

Still wondering where I’m going? Ok, here it is. Let’s imagine that a woman coach is a lesbian. Let’s imagine that she is pregnant and gives birth during the season and that her wife (we’ll say she lives in Massachusetts and can get married) is also supportive of her as a coach and a mother. What kind of coverage would we see? I know it is difficult to imagine such a scenario in the first place because all the lesbian coaches are in the closet so it would be quite a moment to have one announce that she is a lesbian let alone a pregnant one.

My point is that heterosexual coaches, women and men, get to share their personal lives – their husbands, their children – and it is a fun side story. Lesbian and gay coaches rarely do. When they do it is considered brave or risky. Many still perceive identifying themselves as lesbians or gay men, let alone sharing anything about their personal lives, a professional threat. And it might be. Will it become grist for the negative recruiting mill? Will their sexuality become the focus of media attention rather than their coaching record? Will it be a distraction for the team? Will it be perceived as “flaunting their lifestyle?”

Profiles of heterosexual coaches in media guides often include references to their spouse and children: Coach Straight lives in East Happy Valley with her husband and two children. Profiles of lesbian and gay coaches are devoid of family information: Coach Queer lives in East Closetville with her cat, Sneakers. The contrast is sometimes used as a clue to parents and recruits trying to figure out where the gay coaches are and maybe the straight married coaches include this information on purpose as a way to announce their heterosexuality.

Here’s an ESPN side story I’d like to see:

“Coach Comfortable Shoes gave birth to twins 5 ½ weeks ago. Her wife, Susie Shorthair, sitting prominently behind the team, tells us that they are sleep-deprived but so happy to be moms. The team is ga-ga over the new members of the family and happy that Coach Comfortable Shoes is courtside again with a recent 5 year contract extension. After having landed the top high school recruit in the country last week, the future looks bright for the team and for the Comfortable Shoes-Shorthair family.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ESPN on Negative Recruiting

Sunday morning ESPN Outside the Lines featured a short segment on negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation in women’s sports. Negative recruiting, for anyone who doesn’t know what this means, occurs when coaches tell prospective athletes and their parents negative things about other coaches and teams who are also trying to recruit that athlete rather than focusing on the positive qualities of their own school and team. In women’s sports negative recruiting based on sexual orientation can be used against any woman coach, regardless of her sexual orientation.

Negative recruiting based on stereotypes and fears about lesbian coaches is a persistent and shameful practice in women’s sports. It is sometimes mixed with religious overtones when coaches also claim that the “Christian” or “family-oriented” atmosphere on their own teams contrast with the implied immoral and threatening “lesbian“atmosphere on another school’s team. The message sent is that “your daughter will be safe from lesbians here.” Unfortunately, negative recruiting still works with many young women athletes and their parents.

The ESPN segment made the link between homophobia and the decline in the number of women coaches. Commentator Doris Burke noted that SEC schools have hired married men for two women’s basketball coaching positions in the wake of LSU coach Pokey Chatman’s resignation last March. Unfortunately, the segment did not note that hiring a male coach for women’s team is by no means a guarantee that the coach can maintain a professional boundary between himself and the women or girls on his team. A visit to any day of the week tells us this. It’s too bad that some parents and athletes are still more frightened of the big bad lesbian bogeywoman than they are of practically any guy coach.

Kudos to ESPN for featuring the segment. Negative recruiting needs more attention. However, the segment left me with a sense that nothing can be done about negative recruiting. Doris Burke opined that you “can’t legislate right and wrong.” I am assuming that Doris was referring to negative recruiting here, but it was a little unclear to me whether she was referring to homosexuality or negative recruiting when she made this comment.

Let’s assume that she was talking about negative recruiting (I certainly hope so). I’d like to know why we can’t legislate against negative recruiting. The NCAA, athletic conferences, coaches associations and individual schools legislate against certain practices all the time. Other recruiting violations are reported and sanctions applied. Coaches lose their jobs for breaking other rules, why not negative recruiting?

I know it’s tough to do an in-depth story in six minutes, but the segment missed an important opportunity to make the point that initiatives against negative recruiting are gaining some ground. The National Center for Lesbian Rights sponsored an historic national “think tank” on negative recruiting based on sexual orientation in October, 2006 at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis. The resulting two part “white paper” is available on the NCAA web site. Part one outlines the issues and part two outlines best practices for coaches, administrators, athletes and parents. I am proud to be the lead author of this document. Sample policies are included too. It’s a start. Now it is up to all to all of us to follow through.

It’s time for sport governing organizations, coaches associations, athletic conferences and individual schools and coaches to take a leadership role in addressing negative recruiting. Ask if sport organizations or coaches associations you belong to have a policy. How about your school? If you are a parent, athlete or coach who is on the receiving end of negative recruiting, what do you do about it? Don’t just assume, like Doris Burke, that nothing can be done.

Perhaps the most important change will occur when negative recruiting based on sexual orientation no longer works. That change is coming. It is coming slowly, but it coming. I have talked with parents of young women athletes and their daughters who have been offended by a coach’s use of this tactic and, as a result, crossed that school off their list. They believe that playing on a team coached by an ethical and successful lesbian is preferable to playing on a team with an unethical or prejudiced coach of any gender or sexual orientation. I think coaches who assume that negative recruiting always works to their advantage do so at their peril. Parents and high school athletes are more open-minded and becoming more so. Their numbers will only increase. This is the nature of social change.

“Coach Reprimanded, School Sanctioned for Violation of Negative Recruiting Rule”

“Top High School Prospect Rejects Scholarship Offer, Cites Negative Recruiting by Coach.”

Now there are a couple of headlines that would get coaches’ attention.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Making the Connections

I’ve avoided writing about last month’s murder of Lawrence King, a fifteen year old gay middle school student in California. Partly it is because I am so sad and angry about it that I hardly know what to say and partly because it does not directly relate to sport. If I start blogging about all of the incidents related to LGBT people in schools, I fear I would be blogging 24/7.

However, two other news events in the last few days prompted me to make some connections that I think need to be talked about: the anti-gay comments of Oklahoma state legislator, Sally Kern and the opposition to an anti-bullying program that includes sexual orientation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

On February 12, Larry King was shot twice in the head by another student in a classroom at E.O. Green Middle School in Oxnard, CA. Larry was gay. He liked to wear make-up and jewelry. Not surprisingly, Larry was the target of anti-gay bullying and harassment from other students and, according to the few friends he had in school, he spent much of his school time trying to avoid the bullies who found his gender expression and sexual orientation unacceptable.

Brandon McInerney, the 14 year old student who shot Larry, will be charged with murder and a hate crime. He will be tried as an adult. This shooting is a double tragedy for Larry and his family as well as for Brandon and his family. Larry is dead and Brandon has had the rest of his life irrevocably changed.

Sally Kern’s anti-gay tirade was audio-recorded and posted on YouTube. You can listen for yourself. I don’t want to put the link on my blog. She has defended her comments by wrapping herself in the Bible and free speech to justify her ignorance and careless slander of all lesbian and gay people. Her stunning display of bigotry in the name of Christian belief is an outrage. There is no love in her words, only fear and hate.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools’ anti-bullying proposal is opposed by some community members because they believe the program is a front for the “pro-homosexual agenda in schools.” I assume, because the language is so typical of anti-gay Christian rhetoric, that these community groups are led by people, like Sally Kerns, who have religious objections to non-heterosexual people. They don’t want the policy to “promote the acceptance of homosexuality” or encourage “respect for homosexuality.”

If a “pro-homosexual agenda” means making schools a place where gay and gender non-confirming kids are safe, then count me in. If the “pro-homosexual agenda” includes the demand that all students, including those who are or are perceived to be gay or express their gender in non-conforming ways, are treated with respect, then let me be the first to support the “pro-homosexual agenda.”

Unfortunately, people like those who oppose the anti-bullying program in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and state rep Sally Kern are offended by any positive portrayal of, support for, or legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people of any age. They are so driven by their own irrational anti-gay fears and prejudice that anything other than silence and invisibility poses a threat to their fragile and narrow view of the world.

I think people who oppose programs that try to eliminate bullying in schools because they include protection for gay students and elected public officials who proudly spew anti-gay nonsense should some bear responsibility for hate crimes and the violence against LGBT people in and out of school. Where do they think Brandon McInerney and other child perpetrators of anti-gay violence learn this hate and fear?

This is not about a “pro-homosexual agenda.” It is about decency and humanity. It is about protecting all children who are perceived to be on the margins and therefore targeted by bullying. People who oppose anti-bullying policies apparently would rather see a child taunted or even killed than permit a program to explicitly protect LGBT students from bullying. Maybe Larry King would still be alive if someone in his school had stopped Brandon McInerney and others from tormenting him day after day.

It is not so far from North Carolina to Oklahoma to California. We need to make the connection. We need to stop the hate.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

A Funeral for the N-Word

The Student Athlete Advisory Council at Mount Olive College recently held a funeral for the N-word to “to celebrate a death – the death of a hurtful and offensive word.” The funeral included a hearse, casket, obituary and euology to educate the campus community about the history and negative impact of the N-word. At the end of the service, everyone was invited to write on a small slip of paper why they were burying the N-word. The casket was opened and everyone tossed their slip of paper into the casket to symbolically bury the N-word.

Wow. What a great idea. What an original and creative way to educate people and invite them to reflect on the language that they use. How refreshing amid the stories of sports fans screaming racist, sexist and homophobia names at athletes on opposing teams.

We might be closer to achieving a social consensus (at least in the public discourse) that the N-word is hurtful and offensive than we are on the use of sexist or homophobic epithets. It’s difficult for me to imagine fans shouting the N-word at opposing teams without an immediate reaction from school officials. This doesn’t mean that racism isn’t lurking in the stands. It just means that white fans are more likely to self-censor when it comes to the public use of the N-word.

Piggy-backing on the Mount Olive funeral, what if student-athletes at other schools followed the example set by the Mount Olive SAAC and held a service to “bury” all name-calling and taunting at athletic contests. Hearing student-athletes and coaches speak out could have an impact on fans’ behavior. That coupled with a more forceful response by school administrators to offensive fan taunts could be a great way to “take back the stands” for all fans.

Student-Athlete Advisory Councils are community service-oriented groups on college campuses that enable student-athletes to work with community groups and take leadership roles within the athletic department. Planning a funeral for name-calling and taunting of all kinds at games, in the locker room or anywhere on campus would certainly be a community service that would benefit everyone.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Returning to Penn State: A Journey of Hope

Last week I spent two and a half days in State College, Pennsylvania at Penn State University. Lea Robinson, my friend and colleague from Suffolk University and I were invited by the Penn State LGBTA Student Resource Center to make an all campus presentation on homophobia in sport. Allison Subasic, the director of the LGBTA, also contacted the Penn State Athletic Department to see if there was interest in having me make a presentation to athletic staff and student-athletes in addition to the all campus talk.

Athletic Director, Tim Curley, agreed and two sessions were set up for Friday morning – one for athletic staff and another for student-athletes. As most followers of women’s basketball know, Penn State was embroiled in a lawsuit for the last two years filed by a former player on the women’s team over allegations that former coach, Rene Portland, discriminated against players she perceived to be lesbians. Rumors about Portland’s “anti-lesbian” policy have circulated among women’s basketball fans and players since the early 80’s. Last spring the lawsuit was settled and Portland resigned a few weeks later.

In 1992 I was invited to do a presentation for the Penn State athletic department as part of the university’s response to public criticism resulting from media attention to Portland’s policies. As I described in my book, Strong Women, Deep Closets, that session was one of the most painful of my career as an educator committed to making athletics safe and respectful for LGBT coaches and athletes. Not many athletic departments had, at that time, made serious efforts to address LGBT issues and working with any group of coaches was challenging. Working with coaches at Penn State in 1992 was especially challenging given the controversy raised by allegations about Portland’s treatment of lesbian athletes.

So here I was sixteen years later at Penn State again anticipating another presentation with Penn State athletic staff. The session was voluntary so there was no way to tell how many people would come. The room was huge and, before people came, I made a mental note to ask everyone to sit on one side of the room since I thought we’d probably have lots of empty seats.

As the time for the session to begin approached, people kept coming in. The room was abuzz as everyone enjoyed the breakfast buffet set up in the back of the room in the Bryce Jordan Center. Several people came up and introduced themselves to me. By the time Tim Curley started the session by introducing me to his staff, about eighty people filled the room.

We had 90 minutes together. Later Tim and I agreed that was not enough time, but it was a productive time nonetheless. I set up small group discussions about such issues as athletes coming out to staff, conflicts between religious values and lesbian and gay athletes on teams, romantic relationships on teams, negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation, and anti-gay name-calling in athletics. As I moved around the room “eavesdropping” on these conversations, I had the sense of educators who are committed to making athletics at Penn State a place where every athlete is respected and treated with fairness. Perhaps there was also a sense of feeling freed from the burden of negative attention and publicity that Penn State athletics has borne for some time. Whatever the source of the energy in the room, it was gratifying. The issues being discussed are not always simple and I enjoyed listening to and talking with good people working to find fair and practical responses to the discussion topics.

I'm a firm believer in the importance of the active and visible support of department leadership to make athletics safe and respectful for LGBT athletes and coaches. That leadership was present during the sessions on Friday at Penn State. I hope that, among all the pressing business of running a Division 1 program, attention to the importance of addressing LGBT issues will not be left in that room in the Bryce Jordan Center.

There is reason for optimism - Penn State athletics has instituted a diversity and inclusion committee whose mission is to continue to address these issues over the long term. Allison Subasic also provides a yearly orientation program for new student-athletes in which she helps incoming athletes to be better prepared to respond positively to lesbian or gay teammates. These initiatives give me hope that change is in the wind at Penn State. It’s been sixteen years since my last visit to Penn State athletics, but it feels like a new generation of leadership and programming at State College and the possibility of renewal for everyone, including LGBT coaches and athletes.