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Why Are Gay College Athletes in the Closet?

Why Are Gay College Athletes in the Closet?

Basketball photo by Shutterstock

By Barbara Frankel

Why are there so few out gay and lesbian athletes in college sports? While most university campuses have become much more inclusive of LGBT students and faculty, team sports are at least a decade behind, according to several experts we interviewed. The video of former Rutgers basketball coach Mike Rice using homophobic slurs and bullying players is not an anomaly, they say.

“The real problem is with NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] sports. They maintain separate behaviors for sports that we would never deem acceptable anywhere else,” says former NBA player John Amaechi, who came out after his pro career ended. “Colleges are complicit. College sports are a space where homophobic slurs, physical and psychological abuse are not only acceptable but considered normal.”

While about 23 percent of high school athletes come out and play interscholastic sports, only 2 to 5 percent of college athletes are out, according to sources in the LGBT community.

“It’s so hard because there’s no precedent and there’s no support in athletics. As a former athlete, I know how high the stakes are because your team becomes your family,” says Anna Aagenes, Executive Director of GO! Athletes, a national network for LGBTQ athletes and allies.

For college athletes, there are two major minefields in coming out: the potential to lose support and face ridicule from teammates, and the loss of financial (and personal) support from the coach, says Dr. Eliza Byard, Executive Director of GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network).

“Success in supports depends on your acceptance by your teammates. The impact of being rejected by them is so high for athletes. And most college athletes are on scholarships, which means their coach is paying for their education. So coming out can be very risky,” Byard says.

What Is—or Isn’t—the NCAA Doing?

The NCAA oversees athletic programs at 1,281 institutions, including Rutgers. But even though the organization recently has started to focus on LGBT inclusion, it has no power to enforce sanctions over homophobic behavior, says Karen Morrison, Director of Inclusion. Those who believe they have been discriminated against can go through their university administrative process or take legal action.

“We’re behind in how we are treating our LGBT students. Athletics may be one of the last places where the culture is changed,” she says. Morrison says the NCAA cannot enforce penalties, such as fines or suspensions, for homophobic actions or slurs. NCAA membership has to vote on which rules are enforceable, she says, and that primarily has been only rules involving items such as recruiting or financial violations. “We would have to have our university presidents say they wanted to do this, and that isn’t likely,” she says.

Morrison has been involved in setting up NCAA guidelines for inclusion of LGBTQ student-athletes and staff, but she notes that these are purely voluntary, and coaches, players and administrators are not mandated to follow or even read the guidelines.

“We sent the resource to every coach in every sport but that’s all we can do,” she says. “We don’t dictate to our schools who they hire and what they do.”

Amaechi feels strongly that the NCAA isn’t doing enough. “I don’t think they’ve done anything but window dressing. Compliance is the name of their game but compliance has no impact on performance. That’s where the NCAA excels. What they don’t do is proactive change because they like it the way it is. Mike Rice will be recycled in five years’ time and he’ll be a head coach at another school,” he says.

Just like middle managers have often been the barriers to creating inclusive corporate workplaces, coaches are the key to more inclusive sports, the experts agree.

“Coaches who are supportive are far and few between,” Amaechi says. “Even ones who aren’t homophobic are concerned about having an openly gay person.”

“We can’t fire coaches. That’s up to the schools,” Morrison says.

“The NCAA is doing more than what was done in the past, but this kind of change comes slowly,” says Aagenes.

Solutions

Aagenes’ own story points out one solution for LGBT athletes: Do your homework. Just as job seekers research how inclusive corporations are, she advises students to check out prospective colleges and universities very carefully.

Aagenes, who ran track and field, grew up in Bucks County, Pa., and came out as bisexual in high school. “Being a jock was my life. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. You share so much with a team, including hotel rooms, so there was a level of personal discomfort,” she recalls.

She was recruited by Division I schools and chose the University of Pennsylvania. “On my recruiting trips, I knew I wanted to be safe and be out. I picked a school that had a lot of resources and was generally more progressive. I listened to what the team members were saying and I knew these girls would be my allies,” she says.

The NCAA guidelines, developed with Pat Griffin, Founding Director of Changing the Game: The GLSEN Sports Project, have a wealth of valuable ideas, including:

  • Having athletic conferences encourage schools to assess the athletic climate for LGBTQ students and coaches.
  • Having athletic conferences have nondiscrimination policies, including orientation and gender identity/expression.
  • Requiring cultural-competence education for coaches and team captains on the impact of homophobic language.
  • Creating LGBT team honor codes.
  • Creating LGBT-friendly recruiting guidelines for coaches, administrators and parents.
  • Giving students and staff information on all resources available to them, including legal resources.
  • Using a Campus Pride Scorecard to assess the impact of homophobic words and actions.

Amaechi strongly urges the NCAA to push colleges and universities to have the same standards for coaches that exist for teachers.

“Coaches need to meet the same requirements to be around young people as teachers. NCAA coaches are disproportionately powerful. They can decide a student’s fate,” he says.

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