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?


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Wyman Stewart said...

I disagree with you on this topic. I have tried for 3 days to find a polite way to tell you, I can't believe you posted something like this. Wouldn't this fall under being "passive-aggressive."

Here's an idea for a post: How do Gay /Lesbian coaches deal with straight player issues that come up, like dating issues, classroom issues, etc., when athletes bring up these topics? Coaches tend to be a surrogate parent to their athletes.

Even with straight coaches, some are better at dealing with personal issues athletes have, than others. But would a straight parent want their daughter playing for a coach who says, "I'm Gay / Lesbian, that's not an area I have expertise in, so see our campus counselors. I'm here to teach you winning basketball. That's all."

(And I don't doubt a few straight male coaches have been this rude with some of their straight players!)

If Gay / Lesbian coaches avoid such topics like it's the plague, to me, this is a good reason not to hire the person. As a former coach, who knows many coaches, you must have insights I lack. Plus, it's more meaningful than a personal bio at the end of a page about a coach. Do you have meaningful stories to share?

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Being straight or gay as a coach is not really the issue, it comes down to the character of the person

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