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 Badjocks.com 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.


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