Anti-Gay Claims Land Schools in Court

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.5, April 2006,

The issue of homophobia in sports is not new. But what is changing is the likelihood that players or coaches who believe they’ve been victims of anti-gay discrimination will take the issue to court.

Former Pennsylvania State University women’s basketball player Jennifer Harris put a spotlight on the issue this past fall when she accused Nittany Lions Head Coach Rene Portland of discriminating against her based on perceived sexual orientation. Harris, who says she is not gay, alleges that Portland repeatedly asked about her sexual orientation, told other players not to associate with her, and ultimately released her from the team because she thought she was gay.

In late December, Harris filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Portland and the Penn State athletic department. The National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), a California-based law firm, is assisting Harris with the claim.

Portland has denied the accusations, and says she released Harris because her “attitude and work ethic were detrimental to the team.” Penn State has promised a full investigation into the accusations.

This suit is the third athletics-related anti-gay bias case the NCLR has handled in the past two years. In 2004, the center settled out of court with the University of Florida after softball player Andrea Zimbardi claimed she was kicked off the team because she was a lesbian. In the settlement, Florida agreed to pay for Zimbardi’s tuition for her master’s degree and implement mandatory training on homophobia for all of its coaches, athletic administrators, and staff.

In early 2005, Bloomburg (Texas) High School Girls’ Basketball Coach Merry Stephens accused the Bloomburg Independent School District of terminating her contract because of her sexual orientation. That case was also settled out of court after the Bloomburg School Board President testified under oath that Stephens had in fact been fired because she was gay.

“Jennifer Harris’s case is part of a bigger change in the way anti-gay bias is being handled in sports,” says Helen Carroll, Sports Project Coordinator at the NCLR and a former NAIA basketball coach and NCAA Division III athletic director. “In the 1980s and 1990s, we tried awareness and education. But things didn’t really start to change until people began to take the issue into the courts. What these three cases are saying is that anti-gay discrimination in athletics is not going to be tolerated anymore.”

For coaches, navigating this issue successfully means talking with their teams about a topic they may never have addressed openly before. “Historically, players have been left to deal with the issue on their own, because coaches have never been taught how to handle it,” Carroll says. “But this is really a team issue, because of how it affects team dynamics. There will be lesbians on your team who are afraid of their straight teammates finding out they’re lesbians. There will be straight teammates spending their time trying to make sure the lesbian teammates don’t know they know, or straight teammates who will be concerned that lesbian players are hitting on them.

“In the first five minutes of their first team meeting, coaches need to say: ‘As individuals, we have many differences. Those include our backgrounds, our races, our religions, and our sexual orientations. On this team, we are going to accept our differences and turn them into strengths,’” Carroll continues. “Most things on that list are commonly addressed by coaches, but few coaches will say, ‘We have gay players, straight players, and bisexual players—and that’s okay.’ Once a coach says that, no matter what their sexual orientation, players know their coach won’t allow discrimination.”

In the wake of the Zimbardi case at the University of Florida, administrators found that the process of educating coaches opened up a constructive dialogue. “During the discussions, our coaches had a lot to say,” says Linda Tealer, Associate Athletic Director at Florida. “They wanted to bring up scenarios they’d faced in the past, and they wanted to know how to support gay and lesbian athletes on their teams without necessarily drawing attention to an issue those athletes might not want to discuss. It really opened up the topic for discussion and created a dialogue that we’ve kept going ever since.”

In addition, it’s critically important that coaches understand the reporting structure at their school and relay this information to their athletes. Coaches should talk with administrators to determine who can be contacted for help both inside and outside the university if a problem related to anti-gay bias arises, Carroll says, and these phone numbers and e-mail addresses should be given to all athletes.

Discussing an issue that has a long history of silence can seem tough, but most athletes today are very ready to talk. “Once you bring it out into the light and start talking about it,” says Carroll, “it really doesn’t have to be a big deal.”

The NCLR provides educational materials, policy guidance, and free legal counsel: