Monday, August 31, 2015

Being gay in women's basketball: It's still don't ask, don't tell

It's been a little over two months since the Supreme Court ruled on the legality of gay marriages in this country. We haven't heard a peep about it from college women's basketball coaches.

Here's the secret in the collegiate game that everybody knows and nobody talks about. Many of its coaches are gay. Many of its players are lesbians. While it's not unusual for players in the WNBA to come out as Brittney Griner and Glory Johnson have, it is unusual for both professional and collegiate coaches and players to be open about the lifestyle they are leading if they, in fact, happen to be gay.

There are no openly gay coaches in the women's game. A year ago, there was one, Sherri Murrell, who shared news of her partner and children in her bio for Portland State. Murrell was let go after eight seasons last winter.

We had hoped the Supreme Court ruling would pave the way for others to be comfortable enough to be open about their lifestyle that really should be nothing more than that. Just as nobody is making a political statement about being straight; nobody is making a political or theological statement about being gay. Last month, SportsCenter droning in the background, my college-age son and I had the same reaction to a tease for an upcoming story on a Major League Baseball player's decison to come out to his teammates.

"Why is this even a story at all?" my son asked. "So what if he's gay? Do you see stories about players opening declaring they're straight?"

I'm a generation behind him and wonder the same thing. The first black man to play baseball was a story just as the first NFL player to be openly gay was a story. Someday it won't be. Today, we can't see the word Michael Sam in a sentence without a mention of his being gay.

Except that you hear nothing about women's basketball minus the latest revelation in the Griner/Johnson drama. College women's basketball is silent. Insiders still hear about programs that discriminate against gay players, so called "non-gay" programs singled out during a recruiting process that we rarely get a real look at. I've been around this sport for 20 years. I know gay coaches; I know straight coaches; I know gay players; I know straight players. But I would feel just as uncomfortable asking a coach about her partner as she would answering it.

Coaches, perhaps fearful of losing certain recruits, booster support, geez, maybe even their jobs remain silent. They don't talk of partners; they don't share family photos on their bio pages. If their partner has a child, they often don't recognize him or her as their child. But haven't we gotten to the point where if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem?

I asked for response before I wrote this, and most of my emails went unreturned. A refreshing exception was former Old Dominion guard Bettina Love, a Lady Monarch for two seasons prior to transferring to Pitt. Today she is an author, speaker and associate professor of educational theory and practice at the University of Georgia.

Like many college-age women, Love discovered her sexuality in what she calls a welcoming community at Old Dominion, where she met the woman who today is her wife.

For attitudes to change and for progress to be made, Love stressed that being open about lifestyle must come from the top down. Ideally, she said, WNBA presidents, college administration and college coaches would pave the way.

"WNBA coaches don't have to recruit; they don't have to take the heat that a collegiate coach might take," Love said. "

In 2014, the WNBA planned to have a gay pride initiative, which ended up being seen as little more than lip service, a knock to a sizable percentage of the league's fan base.

"If you're looking at the WNBA as a model, this is terrible," Love said. "How do you just deny this huge, loyal fan base you have? You go to any WNBA game, any college game, there are a huge amount of gay people. Because we love the game, because we embrace the community, we tolerate it.

"At the end of the day, it's about revenue. This is the problem with the WNBA. They haven't lost fans because of their homophobia."

Love understands how college coaches are fearful of losing recruits if they open up about their lifestyle, but she adds, "They will also gain some."

Love said she believe many coaches believe they have more to lose than to gain by being open about their sexuality, but isn't it time, she asks for "somebody to step outside the box?"

As for collegiate players . . . 

"There's a difference on everybody on campus knowing an athlete is gay and the public knowing," Love said. "There's this notion these players (like Sam and Griner) are coming out to the public, but that doesn't mean they haven't been living their lives openly gay. I'm a college professor. I don't tell my students I'm gay, but I don't live my life in a way that I'm hiding, either."

One of the most insightful books on the subject is from Kate Fagan, who discovered her sexuality while playing for a University of Colorado team led by born-again Christians. In her book "The Reappearing Act," Fagan talks about losing her best friend, a teammate, because of her sexuality and being made to feel that being a lesbian was a sin. In an article written shortly after the high court's ruling, Fagan questions whether it will have an impact on female athletics and concludes that while it will, it will be in painstakingly slow fashion.

Like my son, I relish the day when this isn't a story -- when we're not looking to either celebrate or condemn a lifestyle. Someone will take the lead in this sport and others will follow. Until it happens, it's still taboo -- unfortunate for a sport that strives to be progressive by its nature.

As always, we welcome your comments.

Related: Same-sex marriage: What's it to you?

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