Sunday, June 20, 2010

Time Out for Blogging - Going On Vacation

I will be on vacation for the next three weeks and will not be posting anything on my blog until Mid-July. The first week we are going on an eight day raft trip through the Grand Canyon. Woo Hoo! I hope all my readers have some fun plans for the summer too. I'll be back soon. Take care, Pat

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What Do USA Swimming and the Catholic Church Have In Common?

Answer: A big disgusting sex scandal, that’s what.

For several months USA Swimming has been embroiled in lawsuits and accusations related to their lax oversight of and response to numerous instances of male coach sexual misconduct with young female swimmers, some as young as eleven. It has recently come to light that, over the last ten years, USA Swimming has banned 36 male swim coaches for sexual misconduct with female team members. Those are just the ones who have been identified. One of the men on the list is Everett Uchiyama, former director of the US National Team.

The abused swimmers who have come forward, their parents, and their lawyers believe that USA Swimming has failed to take seriously their responsibility to conduct thorough background checks on coaches affiliated with USA Swimming. This ABC 20/20 segment on this scandal includes an incredibly tone deaf interview with the executive director of USA Swimming, Chuck Wielgus, that illustrates the problem. Like the leaders of the Catholic Church, he doesn’t seem to understand the magnitude of the problem or want to take responsibility for his organization’s role in failing to protect young girls and women in USA Swimming sponsored programs from sexual predator coaches.

To be sure, USA Swimming is not solely to blame. Parents bear some responsibility as well as local swim clubs who hire these guys. However, it has taken public scrutiny and lawsuits to force USA Swimming to make public the list of banned coaches and begin to beef up their policies and procedures for education, protection, and investigation.

In one of his most insensitive moments, Chuck Wielgus chides the teenaged victims for not coming forward sooner. Right. You are 11, 12 or 13 years old. You have a dream. You want to make the Olympic team. Your coach is going to help you realize your dream. He knows what to do. You want to please him. He’s your coach, you do what he says. You work hard. He is an adult. He is a good coach. Everyone says so. He gets results. What are you to do when he starts doing things that don’t feel right? Do you tell your parents? What will they say? Will the coach stop helping you reach your dream? Is it your fault that he is acting this way? Maybe the special attention feels good in some ways…for awhile. You decide to keep a secret in hopes that things will get better or you can pretend it isn’t happening so that you can keep swimming toward your dream.

Listen to the women athletes who have been sexually abused by their coaches. Even after many years, now adults, they know they have had something stolen from them by men who they trusted to have their best interests at heart when all they really wanted was a secret grope in the equipment room or a blow job in their car on the ride home from practice. One coach directed certain female swimmers to use a “special” locker room where he had a hidden camera set up to secretly record them changing their clothes and showering. I feel like I need a shower just talking about it.

Celia Brackenridge wrote a terrific book, Spoilsports, that examines coach sexual exploitation of athletes. These sexual predators know how to “groom” their targets slowly, gaining their trust and gradually escalating their sexual abuse from simple thoughtfulness or affection to sexually exploitation. It should be required reading for all parents of young girls in sport and the leaders of sport associations like USA Swimming.

A big part of the problem, of course, is that coaches have too much power over their athletes. Athletes tolerate (and parents sometimes condone or ignore or are completely unaware of) all kinds of abusive treatment at the hands of coaches in hopes of reaching their athletic dreams. Athletes and parents often give coaches more trust than they deserve. Athletes spend long hours with a coach, often unsupervised by anyone else, which provides a sexual predator coach with the privacy he needs to get what he wants. The institutions that hire coaches and the organizations that sanction them spend too much time looking at a coach’s win/loss records or the number of Olympians he has tutored and not enough time investigating allegations or suspicions of sexual misconduct by the rotten apples who spoil sport for everyone.

Coach sexual abuse of athletes is a heinous act. It should be treated as the serious crime it is. Every athlete and her or his parents should be educated about what it is, how to recognize it, and what to do about it. Every sports organization should have a strong policy and procedure front and center for dealing with it. A good coach must know more than the best ways to train an athlete for competition. He or she must know what ethical standards are required of adults who have the privilege of coaching young people and must adhere to them.

Since this is an LGBT sports blog, I will say that coach sexual abuse of athletes is not a gender or sexual orientation issue. It is wrong no matter who the coach is. That said, can we also contemplate the possibility that there may be something about heterosexual male privilege, the sexual exploitation of women, and sexism in general that make this problem primarily one of male perpetrators and female victims? I am not saying that heterosexual women or lesbian coaches could not be sexual predators, but I think that our culture has a tendency to create, tolerate or excuse male sexual predators and blame their female victims for calling our attention to them. It is way past time to challenge this passivity in response to sex abuse by men whether we are talking about the Catholic Church or the local club swim team.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Ain’t I A Woman?

This is the title of a speech given by African-American abolitionist and former slave, Sojourner Truth, in 1851 at a Women’s Rights Conference in Ohio. Her speech was in reaction to the privileges that white women had and the comparative silence about the oppression of Black women within both the women’s suffrage movement and the abolitionist movement. Her words reminded the delegates that their definitions of “woman” excluded many women who were not white or middle class.

I am borrowing Sojourner Truth's speech title to raise the question of how sports governing organizations determine whether or not an athlete “qualifies” as a woman eligible to compete in women’s sports events. I attended a meeting this weekend in Baltimore co-sponsored by Women’s Sports International and the American College of Sports Medicine. The meeting was focused on sex verification testing in sport. The purpose was to discuss this controversial issue and, if possible, identify some recommendations for the International Olympic Committee and other sport governing organizations as they work to clarify their own thinking about sex verification testing in the wake of the monumental mishandling of the Caster Semenya case at the World Championships last summer.

The discussion was interesting and revealed a variety of perspectives on sex testing in sport. We are now working via email to come up with a statement that will represent the aspects of our discussion where we are able to reach some consensus. It seems to me it will be fairly easy for us to agree that the health, safety, and privacy of individual athletes should be a central concern. I think we also can agree that education and research about sex and gender identity in relationship to sport performance is sorely needed at all levels of all sports. I believe that we can all agree that it is a good thing that mandatory sex testing has been abolished.

Beyond that, I am not sure if we can agree on specific policy recommendations. From my perspective, participants around the table represented views that run the gamut. That would be from - Stop all sex verification testing and declare eligibility to participate in women’s sports based on an athlete’s gender identity. Based on this hypothetical policy, women athletes who are intersex (or as the medical doctors prefer – have disorders of sexual development -DSD) would compete in women’s events. Period.

At the other end of the opinion spectrum – Some people believe that case by case sex verification testing is warranted to assure that we maintain a “level playing field” in women’s sports by identifying competitors whose DSD could confer an “unfair” advantage because of higher than typical testosterone levels associated with that particular DSD. The other rationale for case by case sex verification testing is to prevent a man from pretending to be a woman in order to compete in women’s sports events (even though in the entire history of women’s sports only one possible and questionable instance of this kind of deception has ever been revealed).

I won’t try to recreate our conversations here. It’s just too complicated and incredibly smart and informed people come down in different places on this. At the same time, there is also an amazing about of misinformation and plain old ignorance surrounding this topic, not to mention some serious anxiety about challenging sex and gender binaries. Because we use “sex” as a way to divide competitors into competition categories – women’s and men’s sports – it becomes important to determine who gets to compete in which category. Unfortunately, this either/or binary we use in sport does not reflect the spectrum of sex and gender identities in the real world. So, we are in this situation of needing to draw a line somewhere on that spectrum to make decisions about who gets to compete where.

Most sports people would probably agree that dividing competitors by sex is the most practical and effective way to approach a level playing field for competition, at least at this point in the history of women’s sports. This division affords the most participation opportunities for the most girls and women. I agree with this perspective, but it can lead to an arbitrary and painful determination that a competitor who identifies and lives as a woman should be disqualified from competing in women’s sports – Caster Semenya is the perfect example of this - because of a belief that a genetic condition she may have affords her an “unfair” competitive advantage.

I think the whole “level playing field” argument is bogus myself. Why are our undies in such a bunch about women who are intersex and women who are transgender competing with other women when we don’t even think twice about many other kinds of competitive advantages that some athletes enjoy. Other genetic conditions confer advantage too, but we just accept them as part of the game. Our height, weight, cardio-vascular capacities, etc. are all largely determined by our genetics. Depending on the sport, our varying genetic characteristics create a decidedly unlevel playing field that we accept. Genetic disorders that confer advantage, like Marfans Syndrome in height sports like basketball or volleyball, are just part of the game. Non-intersex and non-transgender women have varying levels of natural testosterone production too, but we accept that. Why are disorders of sexual development the only conditions we get all hinky about?

The problem I have with case by case sex verification testing, in addition to my skepticism about the so-called “level playing field,” is that the criteria that are used to determine who needs a sex test are primarily based on gender expectations and sour grapes, not genes and science. “She looks too masculine. She plays like a man. She’s too strong, too fast. Her hair is too short” and most important of all, “she won and I didn’t”. I doubt this would even be an issue if Caster Semenya had finished last in the 800m.

Not only are the criteria for case by case sex testing based on social characteristics, but sex verification testing is too simplistic to fairly account for the incredibly complex spectrum of factors that determine our sex and our gender identity. Our physical bodies don’t always link up with our gender identities. Our physical bodies are incredibly diverse in genetic make-up, sexual and otherwise. Sex verification testing, at least as we know it, is inherently unfair and arbitrary.

What to do? We could eliminate sex as a sport category – do away with men’s and women’s sports. We could use some other criteria to determine where and with whom athletes compete. Testosterone levels, height, weight, ability to take up hemoglobin, whatever. There are advocates for this position. It would solve the problem of determining who gets to compete as a woman or man. Transgender women and men, athletes with disorders of sexual development compete according to other criteria just like everyone else. I am reluctant to support this approach because I think it would have a devastating effect on the opportunities for most girls and women to enjoy sport competition.

Or we could open up our minds, hearts and sex categories a little to include a broader and more realistic spectrum of who we acknowledge as women. I think that would enable the most girls and women the best opportunities to pursue their sporting dreams. Thus, I find myself on the far end of the continuum of perspectives advocating that we should let athletes who identify as women compete in women’s sports. I don’t want any more women to have to go through what Caster Semenya has and still is going through (we still don’t know if she will be able to compete again). I don’t want another woman to have to face a panel of “experts” and ask, “Ain’t I a woman?”

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

When Coaches Are Bullies…And Administrators Look the Other Way

The Oregon State women’s basketball program is in the midst of a crisis of epic proportions. Only four players have remained in the program. All the others have left. The coach, LaVonda Wagner, has been fired and the university is planning to eat 1.2 million dollars to get rid of her. How, you might ask, could things go so wrong? According to this article (which I first read at women’s hoops blog), 23 people including 15 players, four assistant coaches and four support staff have left the program over the last four seasons.

The article goes on to chronicle a long list of Wagner’s alleged outrageous behaviors that created a climate of fear and intimidation prompting the mass exodus. It isn’t as if the players and their parents suffered the coach’s alleged abuse in silence. They did not. They complained to the athletic director and the university president, numerous times. But nothing was done. In many cases, their phone calls, emails and letters were not even answered. As late as the end of this season the athletic director said he fully supported Wagner.

What kind of behavior were the players and their parents concerned about? Wagner is accused of:

• Bullying or ignoring injured athletes (including one with a concussion, pressuring them to practice and play anyway.
• Throwing a chair during a locker room tirade (it barely missed a player).
• Psychologically intimidating and belittling players’ skills and effort.
• On a trip with the team, being removed from an airplane because she refused to get off her cell phone when directed to by the flight attendant.
• Ordering players to attend Weight Watchers and pay for it themselves because she thought they were too fat.
• Demoralizing some players so much they needed to get counseling.
• On road trips refusing to allow players out of their rooms except to practice and play games (even on a trip to Hawaii).

I think we can probably agree that these behaviors are completely unacceptable in an educational institution. Can you imagine if a professor treated students in her class like this? What is it that makes this bullying acceptable in athletics, which is supposed to be an integral part of the larger institution’s mission?

The athletic director and the university president were aware of the players’ and parents’ allegations. They chose not to respond or even investigate, it seems. Their silence and inaction, even if they did not actively support her (which it seems they did), was all that was needed to, if the allegations are true to ruin or damage the basketball dreams of at least 15 young women. What could they have possibly been thinking? How is that leadership by anyone’s standards?

You might be wondering what this has to do with LGBT issues in sport. Well, here it is – This is exactly what happens to many young women who are or are perceived to be gay by a coach who has a problem with lesbians on her or his team. Think Rene Portland at Penn State. I have talked to several mothers with lesbian daughters who face similar bullying and intimidation by coaches who have the power to ruin young women’s basketball careers and make their lives miserable and they feel justified in doing just that. Their administrators back them up or ignore what is happening.

Unfortunately, when parents or players try to talk to the coach, it often backfires and the targeting gets worse. If they take it to the next level by talking to the athletic director, either nothing changes or they find themselves sitting on the bench more, having their commitment or desire challenged, or having their skills relentless under attack. The coach holds all the cards and the AD backs her or him. The player has no power. You would think the parents might have more influence, but not so in many cases.

Bully coaches use public humiliation and constant criticism of a player’s desire, skill, and commitment. They call players names and grab their shirts. They make private threats – loss of playing time, revoking scholarships, public exposure of sexual orientation. And many of them do all this with impunity, knowing that what they do in “their” gym or “their” locker room will not be challenged.

I’ve talked to young women who try to tough it out. They don’t want to transfer. They like the school and their academic major. They have friends. They try to keep their heads down and stay out of the coach’s way. They know that if they file a formal complaint, their sports careers are over. They still try to hold on to the love of the game they once had, but it is difficult. Some players decide to quit the team. They abandon their basketball dreams. For a few, the light in their eyes goes out and they take years to heal.

It is way past time for athletic administrators and university leaders to take some responsibility for bully coaches, whether they are bullying on a specific issue, like having lesbian players on their teams, or just general all around bullies, like LaVonda Wagner is accused of being. The AD and upper administration at Oregon State is as much to blame as the coach is for the trauma in that program. Yet over and over, I hear the same story: The coach is a bully and no one with any power to investigate the charges will do anything about it, at least until the player hires a lawyer.

It is the administration’s responsibility to make sure their coaches know what is acceptable and what is unacceptable behavior. Obviously, they cannot assume that the coaches know the difference when stories like Oregon State and Penn State and many others that do not become public keep happening. Somehow, along the way to the big-time in women’s sports, it seems that some coaches have lost their moral compasses. Having too much power can corrupt and often does. We only have to look at big-time men’s sports to see how it works. Is that where we are going? Or have we already arrived?

How do you think these athletic administrators and coaches feel about killing spirits and dreams? Do you think they care?

Bullying among middle school and high school students is a hot topic in education, but how can we stop peer bullying when students have bully role models among their coaches and teachers who supported or ignored by school administrators?