Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Making Connections: White Privilege in the LGBT Sports Advocacy Community

Last week I just happened to turn on CNN at the exact moment that President Obama walked into the White House press conference to make a surprise statement in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin Murder trial outcome.  I almost never watch TV during the day, but it was blazing hot and wicked humid out and I was stuck in the house enjoying the AC. A little bored, I turned on the TV just in time to hear the president make his extraordinary personal statement placing the reactions of many African-American people to the Zimmerman acquittal in the larger context of race and racism in the United States.  

As someone who considers myself a white ally on issues of race and racism, I was impressed by Obama’s statement and his intentional injection of race and racism into the conversation about the Zimmerman trial. I am so sick of hearing white people proclaim that racism is over and that this particular incident had nothing to do with race.  I am outraged that John Roberts and the majority of the Supreme Court believe that it is no longer necessary to monitor individual states’ efforts to make it difficult or impossible for poor people and people of color to vote because racism is over according to their white privileged world view.

I am angry that when African-Americans or other people of color point out how race and racism are still prevalent and relevant in the United States these efforts are attacked by white people as divisive attempts to revive racial tensions of the past or dismissed as “biased” or “too sensitive.” That is exactly what happened when Obama spoke out yesterday.  The twitter world lit up with white conservative politicians and pundits dismissing and criticizing his heartfelt statement.

The problem is not calling attention to race and racism and demanding that we address the on-going institutional manifestations of it. The problem is our inability as a nation and as individual citizens to acknowledge that racism is still deeply embedded in the fabric of our culture and ourselves.  It is NOT calling attention to the on-going significance of race and racism that is divisive; it is the refusal to consider the effects of racism that is divisive. It is the dismissal and erasure of the perspectives of people of color about their experiences in a white-dominated culture that are problematic.

I do not expect blatant white racists to change their perspectives any time soon. Neither do I expect the white conservative pundits who claim that we live in a post-racial society to understand the complacent naiveté of the white privilege embedded in their smug pronouncements.  What I do expect is that white allies, me and white people like me who claim to abhor racism, will stand up and speak out alongside our friends and colleagues of color about the disturbing dismissal of race and racism in our national and personal conversations about justice, both legal and social. 

It is simplistic and not productive to think that it is enough to see oneself as a “good” white person who does not participate in or condone overt acts of racism. This perspective places white people outside of racism looking in. It separates white people from the need to engage in self-reflection or action. This perspective enables “good” white people to stand on the sidelines without confronting our own ignorance, fear, guilt and privilege when it comes to difficult conversations about racism and the ways we good white people are complicit in perpetuating it.  The truth is that white people, all white people, benefit from racism. Those of us who claim to believe in social justice need to confront this uncomfortable reality.  Conversations about racism among white people are often complicated by our guilt, fear and ignorance. Avoiding conversations about racism because we feel guilty, afraid or uninformed is unacceptable. It is the nature of privilege that it is difficult for those who have it to see it.  Becoming aware of one’s privilege can be a painful, yet liberating process. It is a process white people who claim to be allies must engage in.  President Obama called this process soul searching. Unless “good” white people are willing to take on this challenge (and the choice to refuse the challenge grows out of our privilege), we will never effectively achieve racial justice and never understand our roles in either perpetuating or eliminating racism.

Time Out.  

If you are wondering why, in an LGBT sports blog, I am talking about racism, then you are exactly who I would like to engage in this conversation.  A national conversation among white people about white privilege and our roles in perpetuating racism, consciously or unconsciously, is not only about the larger cultural issues of racism and legal justice, voting rights, gun violence or poverty.  We need to integrate these conversations into our everyday lives including our LGBT sports advocacy, education and research. 

To the extent that we unconsciously think of whiteness as the “default” when we are talking about LGBT inclusion and discrimination in sports, we are guilty of privileging white people and ignoring the experiences of LGBT people of color. 

Every time we plan an LGBT educational panel, conference program, research project, course syllabus or workshop and fail to talk about race and racism or include the voices of people of color, we perpetuate racism.

When we sit silently at LGBT sports educational or advocacy events that do not include people of color or don’t even notice this lack of representation, we are perpetuating racism.

When we leave it up to colleagues or friends of color to speak out about racism or to remind us to include voices of color, we are enjoying our white privilege.

When we discount the perspectives of people of color as “too sensitive” or “seeing racism everywhere,” we privilege our own perspectives and experiences over theirs.

When we congratulate ourselves for including a few people of color in our programs without challenging our white privilege, we are perpetuating racism. 

If, when challenged about our ignorance, fear or lack of action about racism, we let our discomfort or hurt feelings silence us, we are retreating into our privilege.

If we claim to be white allies, but have not really taken on the challenge of educating ourselves about racism and the white privilege racism enables, then we are not really engaged in the kind of soul searching that is required to reach our goal of full LGBT inclusion in sports.

One of the keys to social change is identifying our spheres of influence and taking action to address social injustice in those spheres.  We must start with ourselves and talk to other white people about white privilege and racism and then work with people of color to challenge racism with the individuals and organizations we are a part of. 

That would be one way that we in the LGBT sports advocacy world can challenge the white lie that race no longer matters and that racism is no longer a problem in or out of sports.  I am in. Are you?

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Psychotic Coach Behavior: Have We Really So Totally Lost Our Way in College Athletics?

On Tuesday Outside the Lines aired a segment featuring a video of Mike Rice, the Rutgers men’s basketball coach, physically, emotionally and verbally bullying players on his team during practice. Not just one time at one practice, the video was a montage of several instances of the coach’s rages over a two year period.  His tirades included homophobic slurs directed at players, shoving, kicking, yelling and throwing the ball at players’ heads, shins, groins at close range. It was a disgraceful display of rage. The coach’s behavior resembled temper tantrums one would normally only expect from a two year old child.

The OTL segment provoked an immediate response from everyone from Chris Christie, the Governor of New Jersey, to LeBron James, to your average social media savvy sports fan.  On Wednesday, the day after the video went public, Mike Rice was fired. 

Mike Rice’s behavior was appalling enough, but the question now is why wasn’t he fired in November when the video came to the attention to the Rutgers Athletic Director, Tim Pernetti, and the University President, Robert Barchi.  Their decision at that time was to suspend Rice for three games, fine him $50,000 and make him go to anger management  classes AND to keep the whole thing a secret.  It wasn’t until the video became public this week that Pernetti and Barchi started backtracking and finally decided to fire the coach.  Pernetti described his initial punishment for Rice as an attempt to “rehabilitate” the coach.

If anyone on the street engaged in the actions Rice directed at his athletes, they would be arrested for assault and battery.  If a professor at any university treated a student in class the way Rice treated his team, they would lose their job immediately.  If a men’s or women’s golf coach had treated their athletes like Mike Rice did, they would have been looking for a new job the next day. 

College coaches have way too much power, especially men’s football and basketball coaches.  When school leaders tolerate abusive and discriminatory coach behavior or respond to it with a slap on the wrist, or rationalize it away as coach being “fiery,” or “competitive,” or “intense,” we can be sure that that school has sold its soul to the devil of the mighty dollar.  In soulless and hypocritical athletic programs like this, student-athletes are pawns.  Their welfare is not important. Protecting the school’s reputation through secrecy and dishonesty is the priority.  Protecting the cash cow is the priority. Can you say “Penn State?”

The bigger question now is what should happen to Tim Pernetti and Robert Barchi.  How can Rutgers not hold these administrators accountable too.  They badly mishandled their responsibility to protect student-athletes from the irrational behavior of an abusive coach. These men showed incredibly poor judgement in responding to the video of Rice’s behavior.   That they failed to immediately see that Rice needed to be fired in November when they first saw the video, is a testament to the ways that money, the quest for winning teams and big time men’s college athletics can skew your values. Whatever their personal reactions to the video, they decided to take the sleazy way out and hope for the best.  I bet they’d love to have that decision back now.

I also bet that there are other coaches, athletics directors and college presidents who are wondering if similar videos of their team practices are floating around. Unfortunately, Mike Rice is not the only practitioner of the abuse and humiliate model of coaching.  I guess we can hope that fear of the public embarrassment that Rutgers is now living through might motivate other schools to rethink their values and enforce higher standards of coaching behavior from their overpaid diva coaches. Unfortunately, I doubt it. Winning and the money and attention it brings inspire cowardice and hypocrisy in too many college administrators, like Pernetti and Barchi, who’d rather hedge their bets and sell their souls, than do the right thing, at least until their moral compromise hits the evening news.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Coaches, Athletes and Sex: Not a Good Game Plan

In December, Bev Kearney, the highly successful women’s track and field coach at the University of Texas, was looking forward to a new contract from the university with a substantial raise.  In early January she resigned to avoid being fired for having a consensual relationship with a woman on her team in 2002. It is unclear who brought the relationship to the attention of the university, but Kearney acknowledged that she did have a relationship with a student-athlete.

Anyone familiar with athletics knows that some coaches do have sexual relationships with their athletes. It happens at all levels – youth sports, high school, college and professional.  At the youth and high school levels, it is a criminal offense. At the college or professional levels, it may not be a criminal offense, but it is a breach of coaching ethics and an abuse of power by the coach, even when the relationship is consensual.

I believe that coaches who engage in sexual relationships with athletes on their teams should be fired. I draw a hard line on this issue. It doesn’t matter what the gender or sexual orientation of the coach is, it’s wrong and should not be tolerated.

What complicates Bev Kearney’s situation is that, in the wake of her resignation, the University of Texas has now publicly acknowledged that an assistant football coach who had a sex with a female student team manager was treated quite differently. 

Major Applewhite, a former quarterback for UT and now an assistant football coach admitted to having sex with the student during the Fiesta Bowl in 2009.  In addition to keeping his breach out of the media, Applewhite, who was married at the time, was disciplined, had his salary frozen for eleven months and received counseling, but retained his job.  The incident was minimized as a “one night stand.”

Though the ethics and/or criminality of sex between coaches and athletes should apply equally to all coaches – male or female, gay or straight – often the reactions and punishments assigned to the coaches do not. The University of Texas’s differential responses to Applewhite and Kearney highlight the problem.

Applewhite, a white, married heterosexual man coaching football was protected from public embarrassment. His breach of ethics was minimized as a one time lapse of judgement punished lightly and he continues to be employed in good standing by the university. 

Kearney, an African-American lesbian track and field coach, was immediately offered the choice of resigning or being fired for her breach of ethics eleven years ago.  She is no longer employed by the University of Texas. Over. Done.

Even given the differences in the specifics of each situation, UT’s wildly different responses to the two coaches’ ethical breaches is apparent. 

Kearney has  filed a lawsuit against the University charging race and gender discrimination based on the different sanctions meted out to Kearney and Applegate  (I suspect Kearney might have also included discrimination based on sexual orientation too, but Texas has no laws protecting against this kind of discrimination).

The UT board of regents met earlier this month to discuss personnel matters "regarding legal issues concerning individual athletic personnel and legal issues related to inappropriate relations between employees and students." I bet they are talking about Kearney’s lawsuit too.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Power of One Sentence: Heterosexism in Coaches’ Biographies

If you peruse professional biographies for coaches, administrators and other staff on collegiate athletic department websites, you will notice a common characteristic of the vast majority: At the end of the description of each staff member’s professional accomplishments, a one sentence paragraph describes the person’s family.  For example, “Coach Smith lives with his wife, Nancy, and their two children in Small Town, USA,” or “Coach Jones and her husband Frank have two children, Jane (2) and Linda (4).”  Sometimes this sentence is accompanied by a photo of the coach or administrator with her/his family.

This personal information added to a professional biography is intended to provide the reader with information that rounds out the professional profile with a glimpse into the person’s family life.  No big deal, right? Just a little piece of personal information volunteered by the staff member or elicited by sports information personnel.

I want to make the case that this common practice in sports media guides or on athletic department websites is actually quite a big deal.  The decision whether or not to include this one sentence description of family in a professional profile is inextricably tied to heterosexism whether intentional or not, and provides an incredible opportunity to reflect on and take a stand against heterosexism in sports.

Researchers Austin Stair Calhoun, Nicole LaVoie and Mary Jo Kane at the University of Minnesota completed a study  examining online collegiate head coaches’ biographies in the Big 10 Conference. They found that 72% of the bios noted an opposite-sex husband/wife and 28% of the bios made no mention of a significant other.  They also found that none of the bios noted a same-sex spouse/partner. Not one.

While some coaches and other athletic department personnel outside the Big 10 do note same-sex partners in their bios, this practice is rare.  One exception is Kirk Walker, an openly gay assistant softball coach at UCLA, whose bio includes this ending sentence, “The Woodland Hills, Calif. native has a daughter, Ava, with his partner of 16 years, Randy Baltimore.”  Even publicly out lesbian and gay coaches often do not include information about their partners in their bios.  The bio for Sherri Murrell, the publicly out lesbian head coach of women’s basketball at Portland State University, includes information about her children, but leaves out any information about her partner: “Murrell welcomed twins Halle Jane and Rylan Patrick into her family on February 24, 2009.”

My point is that the research on this topic as well as an informal search of athletic department websites and media guides shows that the practice of including information about family and the gender of significant others is largely a heterosexual thing.  Check it out on your favorite athletic department website.

Let’s look at the decision whether or not to include a description of one’s family in a professional bio through the lens of heterosexism.  For a heterosexual married coach or athletic administrator, this decision is relatively minor.  Being heterosexual and married with children is what is expected and accepted. Heterosexuals freely share this information in a million little ways every day: wearing a wedding ring, placing family photos on a desk in the office, having casual conversations with colleagues about family, bringing family to department social and sports events. Why wouldn’t she or he want to include this information in a bio? There is no real down side to providing information about a heterosexual spouse and children. To the contrary, in a sports world where many high school recruits and their parents, athletic directors or the general public still view non-heterosexuals in negative ways, this “evidence” of heterosexuality can be read as a big plus, whether intended as such or not: The coach is not gay! 
Through the same lens of heterosexism, the factors affecting the decision of lesbian, gay or bisexual coaches in same-sex relationships to include their family information in a professional bio are quite different from those of their heterosexual colleagues.  Their decision is a big deal in ways that it is not for heterosexual coaches.  Here is why – Lesbian, bisexual and gay coaches carefully consider this decision because it can open the coach to professional and personal risk in a world where heterosexism is the norm.  Only 16 states and the District of Columbia have laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  There are no federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Many coaches work in schools that do not even have institutional non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation or gender identity. As a consequence, most lesbian, bisexual and gay coaches have no legal protection against discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

Only nine states and the District of Columbia legally recognize same-sex marriage.  All but 14 states have enacted constitutional amendments or statutes banning same-sex marriage or barring civil unions or other official recognition of same-sex relationships.  A federal Defense of Marriage Act prohibits same-sex couples, even those with legally recognized marriages in those states that allow it, to receive the over 1,000 benefits of marriage enjoyed by heterosexual married people.  As a consequence, the relationships of most coaches in same-sex relationships have no legal standing.

Beyond the lack of legal and institutional non-discrimination policy protections, lesbian and gay coaches must ponder the professional consequences of coming out in a professional bio.  Will this information put them at risk of harassment or mistreatment within their athletic department? Will it affect their ability to work with colleagues? Student-athletes? Parents of athletes?

Even working in an athletic department among supportive colleagues does not assure that the decision to include a same-sex relationship in a professional bio will not have negative consequences.  Will this information be used as basis for negative recruiting by rival coaches? Will it affect a coach’s ability to recruit new athletes (and their parents) that they need to win, which in turn affects their job security? Could it affect their ability to get a position in another school’s athletic department should they decide to leave their current situation?

Making this decision is a catch-22 for lesbian, gay and bisexual coaches.  If they do not include any family information in their bios, this omission, in contrast to the pervasive inclusion of family information in the bios of their heterosexual colleagues, can be used against them by those who interpret this omission (often correctly) as confirmation that the coach is gay. If they choose to include same-sex family information, that openness also can be used against them. Either way, lesbian, bisexual and gay coaches or administrators risk discrimination and in 36 states have no legal recourse to challenge it.  Most heterosexual coaches have not even considered this dilemma.  It simply is not part of their experience.

All of these factors are at play in the deceptively simple decision, at least from a heterosexual point of view, to include a one sentence description of family at the end of a professional biography. This difference highlights an important fact: In a heterosexist society, heterosexuals have privileges not available to non-heterosexuals.  Proudly listing one’s family at the end of a professional bio without concern for the professional risk that might accompany such openness is one of them.

One of the exciting developments over the last couple of years is the emergence of straight allies in sports.  These straight allies understand the roles they can play in making athletics a safe and respectful place for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. These straight allies include administrators, coaches and athletes who are taking public stands to help make athletics an inclusive experience where everyone is welcome. Their active support for respect in sports regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity is essential to changing sports culture.

I have an invitation for these straight allies that I believe is a way to move to the next level of “allyship” beyond signing an ally pledge or speaking out against anti-LGBT language. The invitation is to look at that one sentence at the end of professional bios through the lens of heterosexism and see it for what it is: a small piece of heterosexual privilege that places non-heterosexual coaches and other athletic staff at a disadvantage and can put them at risk of being discriminated against. 

The next step is to do something about it.  Part of being a straight ally is recognizing how heterosexual privilege works and understanding the powerful statement allies can make in refusing to take advantage of privilege as one way to eliminate heterosexism in sports. 

The ideal would, of course, be that every member of an athletic department, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, could choose to publicly claim their families without the possibility that this information could be a professional risk. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

What a powerful statement it would be for the elimination of heterosexism in sports for straight allies in an athletic department to omit that one sentence at the end of their bios until such time as their non-heterosexual colleagues can also legally marry and acknowledge their same-sex families without the potential risk of discrimination or negatively affecting their careers.  What a powerful statement for an athletic director to demonstrate a departmental commitment to ending heterosexism in athletics. Mount Holyoke College, under the leadership of Athletic Director Laurie Priest, is the only college athletic department I know of that has taken this position. 

Understanding the heterosexual privilege inherent in the decision to include this one sentence at the end of a professional bio and then doing something to level the playing field is one small step for heterosexuals, but a huge leap toward eliminating a tangible example of heterosexism in sports.  Straight allies, are you in for leaving it out?