A Different Diversity

An increased acceptance of gays and lesbians in the school setting is prompting more coaches to come out of the closet. Is it the athletic director's job to hold the door open?

By Sue Rochman

Sue Rochman is a freelance writer and former Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 14.3, April/May 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1403/diversity.htm

When Jenny Allard, Harvard University's Head Women's Softball Coach, told her team four years ago that she was a lesbian, it was for a simple reason--her partner was moving in with her.

Allard's partner moved into the freshman residence hall where Allard works as an advisor and proctor right before school started. So to make sure everyone on her team heard her news at the same time, Allard sent each of her student-athletes a short welcome-back e-mail message.

"What I wrote," Allard recalls, "was something like, 'I know you'll potentially be stopping by my suite or calling, and I just want to let you know that my partner has decided to move on campus with me and you'll soon get the opportunity to meet her.'"

And that was that. "I had made the decision that I didn't want to quit proctoring and that I wanted to be very honest about how I was living and not be shamed or silenced by it," says Allard. "I ask and expect my athletes to be honest about things. They don't have to tell me everything, but if they are going to tell me something, I want them to be truthful. And because I want to model that, I couldn't tell them I'm hiding my partner behind the left field fence and I'm embarrassed to have them know her."

A Changing Atmosphere
What Allard doesn't say--but what others attribute to her--is the tremendous amount of courage it took for her to come out in an athletic environment. Over the past 10 years, increased awareness and acceptance of gay men and lesbians has swept across high school and college life, fueled by diversity education, gay-straight alliances, and out gay and lesbian students, faculty, and staff.

These changes, though, have often stopped short of the athletic department door. Instead of the openness toward gay men and lesbians found elsewhere on campus, what often still exists in athletics is a dismissive attitude--administrators cannot imagine a coach being successful and out of the closet.

But now there are hints of change. "This is an issue whose time has come," says Pat Griffin, Professor of Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and the author of Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport. "Any athletic director who doesn't start to get up to speed on gay and lesbian issues is going to be hit with a tidal wave because athletes and coaches are not going to be coming out less, they are going to be coming out a lot more."

Many athletic directors have spent most of their careers shying away from--or ignoring--this issue. And the thought of having to begin a discussion on gay and lesbian rights can be disconcerting.

"But the thing is," says Joe Baker, Athletic Director at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, "we need to get over the fear of having the conversation. We may not like the idea but the situation exists and we need to understand the whole idea of difference."

Supporting Your Coach
Coming out doesn't have to be a big process. It can be as simple and straightforward as the e-mail Allard sent to her team. But just because something can be simple doesn't mean it will be.

Lesbian and gay coaches are very aware that coming out can impact their careers. This means that they will probably test the waters and explore their legal rights before they do so. And when coaches are exploring their rights, athletic directors need to know what answers they are going to find. Thus, if they haven't done so already, athletic directors should familiarize themselves with campus non-discrimination policies as well as local and state laws that cover sexual orientation.

This is necessary, says Griffin, because "it is the athletic director's responsibility to stand behind the legal right of his or her gay or lesbian coach to be working in the athletic department."

Standing behind the rights of your coach doesn't mean the process should occur without discussion, however. It is the athletic director's responsibility, says Christine Grant, recently retired Women's Athletic Director at the University of Iowa, to "help the coach review the reality of what may happen, because of the potential disastrous impact on their career."

And if the coach is firm in his or her decision to come out, she adds, "then the athletic director should do anything he or she can to support them and to help them anticipate what might happen and be ready for that."

Even if the athletic director or anyone else at the institution is adamant that coming out is a bad choice, there is little he or she can do. The decision of whether to come out rests solely with the coach. "The athletic director may be right that coming out is sort of a death wish for the coach," says Griffin. "But my sense is that if a coach has made the decision to come out publicly, they've assessed the climate. And it is their right and their risk to make this decision."

Whether the coach and athletic director decide to tell other campus administrators should be based on how the coach is going to come out. If a coach is coming out by speaking at a gay rights rally, for example, telling other administrators will ensure they aren't caught off guard by any publicity that ensues or by phone calls from parents or alumni. In contrast, if a coach comes out by telling her team that she and her partner have just adopted a baby, it may not be necessary for other administrators to have heard the news first.

Regardless of the nature of the coming out, the athletic director should be prepared for phone calls from parents or alumni that may condemn the coach and the school. "That's the reality of what can happen at many institutions," says Oberlin College Athletic Director Michael Muska, who is gay. "Every athletic director should know how they are going to handle it and how they are going to support their coach. They need to know how to make it clear to whomever they talk to that the coach's sexual orientation is completely separate from their ability to do their job."

One of the best ways to respond to negative comments is by mentioning that the school, the city, or the state has policies or laws that forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation. If there are no such nondiscrimination policies, then "the athletic director has to fall back on education," says Griffin. "And one simple educational statement that an athletic director can make is, 'Our department judges our coaches on the basis of their performance and competence not in terms of their racial, religious, or sexual identity. This coach has always done a great job and there is no reason to think that any of this is going to change just because they have made their identity public.'"

"What I say to parents is that I can't make decisions based on difference, because I'm hired to get the best person to do the job," says Baker, who has an out coach on his staff. "I tell them that I respect their belief and that if that is how they feel, then maybe this isn't the best place for their child--and that that's okay too.

"I also try to say, in a polite way," he continues, "that maybe it's time for them to think outside the box, expand their mind, and realize that in the world today their child is going to come into contact with many different kinds of people--and that they may encounter the same situation at any other institution."

Because criticism is not going to come only from outside the school, athletic directors also need to determine how they will respond to coaches or other staff who believe that the out gay or lesbian coach is not supporting the image of the university. One way to do that is to refer back to the school's policies, says Helen Carroll, a former coach and athletic director who now serves as the Athletic Diversity Specialist for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

"You can say, 'Yes, I understand your view on that, but at this university we have a policy that we will not discriminate and that we will treat gay men and lesbians fairly, so you must do that also. And if you can't do that, then we need to talk about what's going on,'" says Carroll.

High School Climate
At the high school level the athletic department is often more integrated into the rest of the school. Here, the athletic director may find that as students and staff become more active in addressing gay and lesbian issues, their department is required to do so as well.

The Atlanta International School, for example, is conducting a job search for a new athletic director. And, says Assistant Principal Ken Jackson, gay and lesbian issues regularly come up during the interview process.

"We want an athletic director who is supportive of gay and lesbian issues because the athletic arena is where school climate is often created and where students can feel the most opportunity to be intimidating or to be supportive," explains Jackson. "The tone that a coach sets or expects and what the coach says or doesn't say as a way of motivating the students is significant.

"Using the word 'fag' to motivate an athlete, for example, is simply something we don't allow," Jackson continues. "And we want an athletic director who understands that and why. This will help coaches who want to come out and it will help our student-athletes."

Policy Review
It may take a coach's coming out to spur an athletic director to review their departmental policies to ensure that they are inclusive. One issue to look at, says Allard, "is what the school's travel policies are. If it's okay for coaches who are married to take their wives or children to NCAA regionals or finals, then it needs to be okay for the partner of a gay man or lesbian to go. For the department to say that the partner can't go because the couple isn't married is discrimination, because gay men and lesbians can't legally marry."

In reviewing her own department's materials, Laurie Priest, Athletic Director at Mount Holyoke College, decided that the college would no longer say anything in its sports brochures about a coach's family. "Doing it that way is a lot easier," she says. "And when it comes down to it, what does the coach's family have to do with their work as a coach? It's not that we are trying to hide it, but we're not saying one thing about one person and then omitting it on another. That to me is an inclusive act."

If they haven't done so already, athletic directors should also begin incorporating programming on gay and lesbian issues into their diversity training. "I firmly believe that things happen from the top down and that if an administrator shows support then people are going to see that," says Baker. "We all need to be more educated and sensitive in this area. Being a black male, I hate the term 'tolerate.' I don't want you to tolerate me. That's the last thing I want you to do. I want you to understand me. And that's a point we try to drive home: We want you to understand people."

Another policy point should be that it is the coach's decision alone whether to come out--or even to bring up the matter. In other words, even if the athletic director is certain that his or her coach is gay or lesbian, it is not okay to broach the subject before the coach does.

"I don't think it's appropriate for the athletic director to do that," says Muska. Instead, he says, "the athletic director should visibly do things that show that you are gay-supportive and that this is an inclusive environment, and that it is a comfortable place."

Recruiting Concerns
Another significant issue looming large behind the subject of coaches and coming out is the specter of an out gay coach not able to recruit top athletes. As Grant puts it bluntly, "The university could be the most supportive in the world but there can still be a negative impact on recruiting. And--I'm talking Division I--if you can't recruit, you're dead."

Few in athletics would question the validity of those words. But the only way this situation will change is by addressing it head-on. And the first place to look, some say, is at the anti-gay negative recruiting that remains all too commonplace. This can be subtle, like a female coach mentioning her husband, or it can be much more overt.

"Coaches or athletic directors will make comments like, 'I understand the coach at such and such place is gay and are you sure you want your son or daughter in that particular situation?'" says Muska. "The NCAA and others have to emphasize that this is unacceptable behavior."

It is possible that as a growing number of student-athletes begin learning about gay and lesbian issues in high school, or come to college having been on a high school sports team with an out gay or lesbian teammate, anti-gay recruiting statements may backfire. Further, as Priest recently learned, when parents become aware of gay and lesbian issues, a gay-positive environment may actually prove beneficial.

"Recently I was recruiting a top athlete," recalls Priest, "and when I had lunch with the daughter and the mother I mentioned that my partner and I went kayaking in the Everglades. Later, the mother said to me, 'You've been so open. No other school we've been to has been open. I think that my daughter might be a lesbian, and I want her to go to a place where there are good role models and where she will feel good about herself.'"

Defusing Fears
Creating an environment where gay and lesbian issues are accepted and discussed can help defuse many of the fears of what will follow a coach's coming out. That can also make coming out a more natural process.

"In our athletic department, it is easy, and coming out is just something that evolves," says Priest. "It's not a set thing that a coach will come out to the team. I think instead it may occur through conversations with the team or, if a coach is asked, she might say, 'my partner, so and so.' It's much more natural than saying to the team, 'I need to tell you who I am and I'm a lesbian.' I'm not sure how critical that is or where that really fits."

This type of environment is not only beneficial for both coaches and student-athletes, but can be important for the coach's partner, too. Carl Clapp, Athletic Director at Saint Mary's College (Calif.), witnessed the support that can exist between a team and a coach's partner when his Head Women's Lacrosse Coach, Diane Alexis Whipple, was mauled to death in a vicious dog attack. Not only did the incident make national news, so did photos of Diane's partner, Sharon Smith, mourning with Diane's student-athletes.

Clapp had been at St. Mary's only six months when Whipple was killed, and it was only then that he learned that she was a lesbian. "I would never seek out that information and she never told me," says Clapp. "What I knew about Diane was that she had a tremendous passion for lacrosse. She was more than a coach to the young women on her team. She was an educator, and she taught them about life and life's challenges. If she had wanted my support, I would have supported her in any way I could. But the only support she ever asked me for was for her program, which was her focus and her passion. The issue never came up."

And perhaps that is what athletic directors need to understand most. The person they respect as a coach may also be gay or lesbian--and how big of an issue that is or becomes is one that athletic directors have the ability to control.

"Maybe it really doesn't have to be so complicated," says Carroll. "Maybe the athletic director just has to realize that it is okay to have out coaches, that they are good role models for both gay and straight students, and that great athletes will still come to their program. And once they understand that, maybe then we can get rid of the fear."

Some athletic directors are making that happen. "We as athletic directors have to come out of our shells and realize that there is a big society out there and that there are many issues that spill over into our athletic programs," says Baker. "We just can't sit in our office every day and worry about how many people were at our game last night and how much money we took in. We need to deal with real-life issues that our students and staff are dealing with on a daily basis. We can't think that gay and lesbian issues don't affect us, because they do."

Lambda Legal Defense
Here, athletic directors can find maps and charts of all cities, counties, and states that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Human Rights Campaign
This Web site has information on how straight individuals can develop an ally program to support gay and lesbian co-workers.

Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network
This Web site has information on how to create a safe school environment for gay and lesbian students. Also on this site is Pat Griffin's article "Assessing the Athletic Climate for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Athletes and Coaches."