Friday, April 9, 2010

The WBCA and Training Rules: Whose Problem is Homophobia Anyway?

I just ran across this story about the Women’s Basketball Association’s (WBCA) refusal to allow the documentary Training Rules to be shown as part of their convention program in San Antonio last week. Dana Rudolph at also wrote a blog about this. Since I was the one who proposed showing the film as part of WBCA convention session, I decided to write a little more about this. I mentioned it in one of my recent posts, but I think it deserves a little more comment after reading the article.

When I proposed this session for the WBCA convention, they asked me to send them a copy of the film so they could review it, which I did. I did not hear back from them about whether or not the session would be included on the program for a few months. When I did hear back it was from WBCA CEO Beth Bass who told me that they would not allow Training Rules to be shown as part of the WBCA convention program. She believed the film would be controversial and that it rehashes a situation that has been resolved. As a result, she did not see what was to be gained by showing the film as a part of the convention program.

This squares with Beth’s quote in the article above, "Our job is to protect the coach and the profession. The coach that is the subject of the Training Rules documentary is no longer in the coaching field and the situation has been handled by the institution."

I am a little disturbed by the thought that the job of the WBCA is to “protect the coach and the profession” in this context. Does that mean that the WBCA’s mission is to protect coaches when they discriminate against athletes or engage in unethical behavior? Wouldn’t the profession be better served (or protected) if its national organization took a strong leadership role in addressing discrimination and unethical behavior among its membership? It also raises the question of what responsibility the WBCA has to the student-athletes their members are coaching?

The second part of the quote, “The coach that is the subject of the Training Rules documentary is no longer in the coaching field and the situation has been handled by the institution," implies that the problem of anti-lesbian discrimination addressed in the film is confined to Penn State and former coach, Rene Portland, thus there is nothing to be served by showing the film to other coaches. Sadly, the problem of anti-lesbian discrimination is bigger than Penn State and Rene Portland, yet Beth’s quote implies that the problems addressed in the film are in the past, “handled,” to use her word. I could only wish this were true.

Anti-lesbian prejudice among coaches, parents of athletes, athletic administrators and student-athletes is still a huge problem in women’s basketball. I talk to young women and their parents every year who face similar anti-lesbian discrimination described by the former Penn State basketball players in Training Rules. The point of showing the film is to educate viewers about anti-lesbian discrimination in sport and analyze how it is allowed to happen in institutions of higher learning that profess to value diversity and non-discrimination. By asking coaches to discuss these issues, we can pave the way to better policies, more accepting team climates, and, yes, fewer lawsuits in the future. Now that could protect both coaches and athletes.

Beth says the WBCA is about protecting coaches? All you really need to know is that there is only one publicly out lesbian Division 1 coach of women’s basketball – Sherri Murrell of Portland State University. Of course, there are more lesbian coaches, but they are closeted out of fear of discrimination and they are also members of the WBCA. What of the organization’s responsibility to protect them?

I sat across the table from Beth Bass at the national think tank on negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation in 2007. I know she believes it is important to address anti-lesbian practices and policies among coaches. She led efforts to institute the WBCA coaching ethics code that every member must sign. The WBCA has also sponsored several convention workshops that I have been a part of over the last 15 years that address homophobia in women’s basketball. So it’s not that Beth or the WBCA are hostile to lesbian coaches or student-athletes.

However, like so many women’s organizations that happily accept and thrive on the work of lesbians, I wonder if the WBCA is more comfortable when those lesbians are silent about who they are. Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is in effect in many places besides the military. Perhaps another factor in the WBCA’s decision not to allow Training Rules to be shown at the convention is that Rene Portland was a prominent member of the organization. The WBCA twice awarded her their Coach of the Year Award. Portland’s “no lesbian” policy was an open secret for her entire tenure as coach of the Penn State team. It is difficult to believe that other coaches voted for her knowing her anti-lesbian beliefs, but they did. That has got to be a little embarrassing.

I remember not long after the lawsuit against Portland became public in 2005, the women’s basketball coaches of the Big 10 conference, of which Penn State is a member, released a public statement supporting Portland. How could they do that knowing about the rumors that have swirled around her for more than 20 years? But they did.

We need coaches to stand up and insist that their colleagues treat student-athletes with respect and fairness no matter what their sexual orientation. We need national coaching organizations like the WBCA to lead the way by shining a light on discrimination and unethical coaching among its membership, not “protecting” coaches and the profession from examining the ugly truth of homophobia among their ranks.

I hope that, by writing this blog post, I am not alienating the WBCA and as a result have led my last WBCA workshop on homophobia in women’s basketball. We still have a lot of work to do. The problem is not old news, handled or confined to one institution or one coach. But if I have offended the WBCA or Beth Bass by speaking my piece, so be it. It needed to be said.


Unknown said...


I think you've made some valid points here. Assuming that there are a substantial number of lesbian athletic coaches and administrators out there don't you think it would be more productive and send a forceful and united message to the WBCA for them to ALL to come out like Murrell?

Anyone that has been involved in organized athletics for any amount of time is pretty well aware of the lesbian basketball community. It's a bit concerning to me that lesbian coaches continue to look for validation from outside of their community when at the same time they aren't willing to acknowledge their orientation in public.

Seems you folks are in control of this, you just need to have the guts that Murrell did. I believe that Murrell has been quite outspoken about the fact that her coming out has been a "non-issue" for her university and parent community. Seems you have your trail blazer already, the rest just need to step up. Certainly some career risks are involved but until the lesbian community takes a united stand on the issue it seems a bit much to expect mainstream organizations to advocate your lifestyle choices.

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