Thursday, September 25, 2008

Trouble Brewing at SMU

A former basketball player at Southern Methodist University in Dallas has filed a lawsuit against the school and head women’s basketball coach, Rhonda Rompola. Jennifer Colli alleges that Rompola revoked her scholarship in retaliation because Colli complained to the athletic director that Rompola was asking questions about her sexual orientation and about the sexual orientation of other players on the team. An SMU internal investigation found that Colli’s accusations were unfounded.

The article goes on to report on other allegations included in the lawsuit. According to Colli, Rompola told the team she “did not approve” of gay relationships on the team. Colli, who acknowledges that she was in a relationship with another player on the team, says that there were also relationships among other players and also past relationships among coaches. Four of Colli’s teammates and her sister have signed statements supporting Colli’s allegations and claiming that Rompola herself was involved in a past “long term” relationship with a female assistant coach. Last year Rompola married Mike Dement who is the head men’s basketball coach at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro, where he lives.

Colli also alleges in the lawsuit that interest in her expressed by other coaches at schools where she hoped to transfer evaporated after those coaches talked to Rompola, prematurely ending her basketball career.

I have no idea what the facts are in this case. However, if Colli’s allegations are true, it is yet another example of why it is so important for schools to educate coaches and athletic administrators about discrimination based on sexual orientation in athletics and about responsible and fair policy decisions about relationships among teammates, whether that team is only men, only women or both men and women.

That the allegations in this case include the contention that Rompola has also been involved in same-sex relationships point up the damaging effects of internalized homophobia. Again, I know nothing about the facts in this case, but by turning her own fear on her players who are lesbian or bi, a lesbian coach buys into the belief that lesbian athletes are the problem, not homophobia. As more young lesbian and gay athletes are comfortable with their sexuality and have a sense of entitlement to fair treatment, the gulf widens between them and their coaches, regardless of the coach’s sexual orientation. Unless coaches educate themselves, they risk being on the receiving end of a discrimination lawsuit.

The tragic part of this lawsuit is that it will be read by some schools as justification for avoiding lesbians coaches and athletes or going on a witch hunt against lesbian coaches and athletes as a way to prevent being caught in the legal and public relations nightmare into which SMU is now descending. Ironically, many of these same schools continue to hire, recruit and defend male coaches and athletes who are charged with rape, drug offenses, other felonies as well as NCAA violations as long as they are contributing to the win column. While these offenses are tolerated, all a lesbian coach or athlete needs to do is get caught being who she is and having the nerve to demand respect and fairness.

It would make so much more sense to educate athletic staff about effective, fair policies that are not based on discrimination or fear. I invite readers to check out resources we have on the It Takes A Team web site that address these issues and provide policies recommendations for athletic administrators and coaches.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Announcing the first Horse’s Patoot Salute

This news story has inspired me to initiate a new “award” that I will bestowing from time to time on deserving people, organizations, events in the world of sports. The Horse’s Patoot Salute will go to particularly outrageous and offensive instances of homophobia in sport. I like the image of “Horse’s Patoot” because awardees will be chosen based on their backward, rear view, out-dated and bigoted views on LGBT people and issues in sport. I will be the sole judge of who or what deserves recognition, but would love to hear from other folks who want to nominate a loser, I mean, winner.

Now, with no further adieu. I’d like to announce that (drum roll, please) the inaugural Horse’s Patoot Salute goes to youth travel baseball head coach Scott Kaletha and assistant coach Mike Schwanke of Michigan City, Indiana. One of the 12 year old boys on their team was being harassed by other boys calling him such creative names as “homo, queer, fag.” These adult men who claim to be coaches acknowledged that they knew this harassment was occurring, but said they didn’t see anything wrong in the boys’ actions or language. Kaletha said it was only "joking and humor" and "just boys being boys." Yeah, we’ve heard that before along with “normal hazing.” It wasn’t only that Kaletha permitted the boys on his team to harass their teammate with homophobic slurs, he also apparently encouraged it, even participated in it himself.

The news article also reports other unacceptable behavior by the these men who call themselves coaches that, if true, is equally outrageous – challenging opposing coaches to fights, arguing with umpires, getting thrown out of games, telling their pitcher to intentionally hit batters from the other team.

Michigan City Park Superintendent, Darrell Garbacik, suspended the so-called coaches for one year, but they are appealing their suspension. Hats off to Garbacik for taking his principled stand. Let’s hope the appeals board is equally enlightened.

I am not making this stuff up. I wish I was.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mesa Community College Lesbian Coaches Title IX Charges Substantiated

My blog post on May 20, 2008 described the details of lawsuit brought against Mesa Community College in San Diego, CA. Two lesbian plaintiffs, the women’s basketball coach and director of basketball operations, who are also life partners with three children, charged that they were fired in retaliation for complaining about Title IX violations at the school. They also charged discrimination based on their gender and sexual orientation.

365 Gay News not only provides some background from the retaliation lawsuit at Fresno State, but also describes the results of the OCR investigation into the Title IX violations at Mesa. The OCR report called the Title IX violations at Mesa “substantial and unjustified.” The OCR did not investigate the coaches’ gender and sexual orientation discrimination charges however. That part of the lawsuit is still to come. NCLR is representing both women so Mesa better start saving their nickels and dimes because they are probably going down.

You’d think after the numerous examples we have now of coaches of women’s sports winning lawsuits or out of court settlements in these Title IX retaliation cases that athletic directors would wise up. It’s like they need an AA-like group for themselves or something. “Hi, my name is Dick and I am a sexist and homophobic pig (without lipstick, of course). I can’t seem help myself. I just hate it when women coaches (especially lesbians), challenge my authority by demanding equal treatment. The nerve! I am powerless to avoid court appearances and embarrassing media coverage that make me look like a horse’s patoot.” Maybe some of the ADs who have already been through a Title IX lawsuit could step up and sponsor these guys to help them control their addiction to sexism and homophobia. I mean no disrespect to AA here.

All I can say to ADs who still don’t get it – The times are changin’, guys. We sue, we win. Athletic directors everywhere, bury your head in the sand at your own risk.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Bob Costas Talks about Sports Media and Gay Athletes

Check out this excellent interview with sports commentator Bob Costas on media coverage of lesbian and gay athletes. The interview follows the reaction in the gay sports press and blogosphere to the failure of NBC Olympic TV commentators to acknowledge that Australian Olympic diving gold medalist, Matthew Mitcham is openly gay (NBC first defended their silence and then later apologized for their omission).

Let's hope that what comes out of all this is that the next time we have an openly gay or lesbian athlete competing, the "up close and personal" media coverage is the same as we have come to expect when the athletes are heterosexual. I am not talking about special attention or sensationalized voyeurism. I am saying that identifying an openly gay athlete as such is ok. It is more than ok. The failure to do so perpetuates the idea that gay people should stay closeted and that acknowledging that an athlete is openly gay is inappropriate. I am talking about the media treating openly lesbian and gay athletes as if they have lives outside the pool, gym or playing field and that their families, spouses and children are just as much a part of their story as they are for heterosexual athletes.

It is still all too rare to have a gay or lesbian professional or Olympic athlete come out while they are competing. The media needs to honor their courage and not slam the closet door in their faces by pretending they didn't come out. Here is a wonderful media article about openly lesbian Olympic softball silver medalist Lauren Lappin that provides a terrific example of the kind of media coverage openly gay athletes deserve.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Fearless and Fabulous

I’ve written before about Jeff Sheng and his traveling photo exhibit of LGBT high school and college athletes (November 12, 2007). The project is called Fearless and you can learn more about it at Jeff’s web site Fearless Campus Tour. In the tradition of the Love Makes A Family photo exhibit project, Fearless is a way to raise awareness and to put faces to the abstract concept of “LGBT athletes.” It is a way to help people understand that LGBT athletes are members of every school community and that their academic and athletic goals and interests are not all that different from everyone else. The athletes featured in Fearless are your teammates, friends, sons and daughters, nieces and nephews. They are people sitting next to you in class or at the movie theatre. They are also role models for younger generations of LGBT athletes who still need to see their experiences celebrated and still need to know that being an athlete and being openly gay, lesbian, bi or trans is possible.

Some day, coming sooner than later, we will not need to describe LGBT athletes who are open about their sexuality as fearless, but today we still do. Thanks, Jeff, and thanks to all the athletes who chose to be a part of your wonderful photo exhibit.

I found this posting on YouTube in which Jeff talks about the Fearless photo exhibit. Check it out. Better yet, see if your school would like to host the Fearless photo exhibit. You can get in touch with Jeff through his web site.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Is Hazing Ever "Normal"?

It’s the start of another school year. It’s time to turn attention from the Olympics to schools again. I hate to begin the school year on a depressing note, but here is an appalling story about middle school bully boys who have apparently been terrorizing and gang raping seventh grade boys with a plastic cone in the school locker room for months. The alleged rapists and bullies are athletes on school teams between the ages of 13 and 15.

Most of the incidents reportedly occurred just outside the physical education instructors’ office. Other boys who witnessed the crimes said that the screams of the victims were definitely within earshot of the teachers and coaches, but they never investigated or intervened. An initial investigation by school administrators apparently dismissed the claims of victims saying that the incidents did not go beyond “normal hazing.”

Normal hazing? And what might that be? Is hazing so ingrained in athletics and physical education culture that there could be any kind of harassment or humiliation that can be described as normal? Where do we draw the line? Is calling a kid “fag” ok? Is shoving him into his locker or snapping his butt with a towel ok? Is forcing him to submit to public sexual assault ok?

When middle school athletes have already escalated their bullying to gang rape, what kind of hazing can we expect once they made the high school varsity team? What is it about athletics that we ignore or excuse behavior that would be criminal in another setting?

So much of the hazing that occurs on high school and college athletic teams seems to involve gender, sexual and sexual orientation based attempts to humiliate the team “rookies.” These activities are usually accompanied by forced consumption of large quantities of alcohol. You know that something is institutionalized when there are commonly understood names given to these activities: tea-bagging and elephant walks to name two hazing practices on men’s teams. It isn’t only male athletes hazing younger teammates and classmates. High school and college women’s teams are increasingly engaged in hazing too and much of it is also homophobic. Check out the resource on hazing on the It Takes A Team Resource page.

The problem is that too many male coaches, physical education teachers and school administrators see bullying and hazing as normal and harmless . Is it really just a part of growing up male to have to endure daily taunts and physical assaults in the hope that you get to inflict the same terrorism on the next younger generation. Today’s middle school perpetrators were probably yesterday’s victims.

Is it really necessary to humiliate and bully someone to encourage “team bonding”, which is always used as the rationale for condoning hazing? How pathetic is it that middle school athletes need to assert their power over younger, smaller classmates to feel superior and in control?

Encourage any honest conversation among men about locker rooms, physical education classes and athletic experiences and you soon learn how “normal” and widespread bullying and hazing is and how painful and enduring the memories are.

Any school administrator, coach or parent who has not taken an active part in helping their school institute tough anti-bullying policies and anti-bullying education for staff and students is part of the problem. We can all look at this school in Texas and be appalled at their lack of preparation and response, but what about our schools? How do we know similar incidents of violence tolerated as “normal” hazing aren’t occurring right under our noses in schools where we coach, teach or send our children every day?