The College Sports Closet: Increased Attention from the NCAA and Pressure Applied by Gay Activists May Finally Even the Playing Field for Gay Athletes. (Athletics)
Bull, Chris, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
When Dwight Slater was recruited to the highly ranked Stanford University football team, he hoped it was another step toward his lifelong dream of playing professionally. And as a 6-foot-4, 280-pound offensive lineman with a rare combination of strength and agility, he felt that even this lofty goal was within his reach.
But shortly after arriving in Palo Alto, Calif., in 1998 for his freshman year, Slater realized that his growing awareness of his sexual orientation had put him on a collision course with his teammates. "The very first week a bunch of us were in one of the guys' dorm rooms," Slater says. "He pulls out this poster of a scantily clad woman and says, `This is my I'm-not-gay poster, so if my roommate's gay, he'll know to stay away.'
"It sparked this long conversation about what you would do if your roommate tried to touch you," Slater adds. "Both inside and outside the locker room guys would make derogatory comments about gays. I felt like saying, `I'm here, and you are talking about me,' but I couldn't. I wasn't out of the closet, and I felt that doing so would jeopardize my position on the team."
After coming out to his head coach, Tyrone Willingham, and to many of his teammates after his first season, Slater felt so uncomfortable that he quit the team at the end of the year. "I was forced out of football," he says now, in the last semester of his senior year. "I will never forget how Coach seemed relieved when I told him I was leaving the team. He had my papers prepared for me to sign. Who knows what would have happened had I just been allowed to be myself? Perhaps I'd be preparing for the [National Football League] draft."
Slater's experience is hardly a unique one. According to current and former college athletes, coaches, and administrators, homophobia retains a stranglehold on college athletics, forcing gay athletes into a Hobson's choice between the closet and their sport. Though colleges and universities have made strides in accommodating gay and lesbian students and faculty, athletic departments have generally lagged behind.
But in recent months, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the governing body for more than 900 institutions, has taken steps to address the concerns of athletes like Slater. At its annual conference in January, for instance, the NCAA sponsored the first panel discussion on antigay prejudice in college sports. And NCAA News, the association's official publication, has begun to explore the topic in articles and editorials.
"There's no question that college athletics have not kept up with the rest of campus life," says Dave Lohse, associate athletic communications director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who is openly gay. "We are still seeing a lot of athletes who feel they have to stay in the closet, and they sneak off to gay bars off campus. It's up to the NCAA and the athletic departments themselves to make kids feel safer. To get there, we need help everywhere we can get it, including from the gay rights movement."
Until recently, though, very few gay rights advocates paid any attention to college sports. Then last year, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a San Francisco-based legal group, launched the Homophobia in Sport Project to advocate for the rights of gay and lesbian student athletes.
"One of my concerns is that a lot of coaches and athletic directors are not willing to even consider that male sports athletes could be gay," says Helen Carroll, manager of the project. "The mentality out there is a little like the military's: You simply can't be gay and play sports. These kids don't have any advocates. But I am guardedly optimistic because I think the top leadership of the NCAA gets the importance of the health and welfare of gay and lesbian athletes." NCAA officials did not return calls for comment.
Carroll knows whereof she speaks. After serving as head basketball coach at Wayne State College in Wayne, Neb., from 1979 to 1981, she accepted the head coaching job at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. There she both came out to her team and built the program into a national powerhouse. In 1984 the team won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championship, and Carroll was named Coach of the Year.
"In Nebraska, I coached in silence and hated it," says Carroll, who also served as athletic director of Mills College in Oakland, Calif., from 1988 to 2000. "When I got the next job, I decided to give being out a try. I took what was a little ragtag team and in three years we'd won a national championship, knocking off one team that had 48 straight wins. I'm convinced that being open and honest with the team set a winning tone by showing them that you have to have strength and you have to have pride in what you do."
Now Carroll is pursuing a legal strategy aimed at forcing the NCAA and universities to create a more hospitable climate. "We are hoping to find athletes who are willing to work with us to document the discrimination they faced," forming the basis for federal lawsuits against colleges and universities that refuse to take steps to combat antigay bias.
Slater agrees that changes must come from the top. When he finally came out to Willingham, the coach counseled him to come out to his parents back home in Florida before addressing the team. But Slater wasn't ready to confide in his parents, so, he says, he and Willingham found themselves at loggerheads.
"Coach would ask me every day at practice, `Did you tell them?' and I would have to tell him no. He dealt with it in the way coaches deal with everything, in a very regimented way. I don't think it was his fault, and he had my best intentions at heart. It was simply a new situation he had never dealt with. I'm sure I made mistakes too." (John Heisler, a spokesman for the University of Notre Dame, where Willingham is now head coach, says Willingham "remembers Dwight Slater and he remembers the conversation [about his sexual orientation], but because it was of a personal nature, he is does not feel it is appropriate to discuss it publicly.")
All freshman football players are required to view NCAA training videos on everything from gambling to steroid use. But Slater says there were no videos that addressed sexual orientation and team sports. "It would have helped me so much if there had just been some basic information," he says. "So much of what happened was based on ignorance."
Despite Slater's negative experience, the world of college sports has come a long way since 1991, when Rene Portland, the standout women's basketball coach at Pennsylvania State University, distributed training notes to her recruits reading, "No alcohol. No drugs. No lesbians." The revelation forced the school to institute sensitivity training for the entire athletic department.
"I don't think we will ever see another Rene Portland episode," Lohse says. "With the exception of a few conservative Bible colleges, any major university would have to go into big-time public relations mode to deal with allegations like those. I don't think she would have a lot of defenders today."
Ryan Quinn is a case in point. A junior on the Nordic skiing team at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Quinn came out to his teammates and coach last year.
"I just decided that I felt ready and that it was time," says the 20-year-old, who is one of the top-ranked cross-country skiers in the country. "I spend so much time with my teammates, it didn't seem right to keep my life separated. So I went to my teammates at a party and one by one told them my situation. The next morning I got calls from all these people asking me if I was OK about telling them. It turned out to be a great experience. Now I can tell them about my boyfriends or whatever I want."
Quinn says the individual nature of his sport, combined with the international composition of the team, may have made his coming-out process easier than Slater's. "Half my team is from Norway, Italy, Slovakia, and Canada. These are countries that I'd heard were more accepting."
Since becoming a champion skier in high school in Alaska, Quinn has dreamed of making the U.S. Olympic team. With the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City this year, he watched the skiing events up close, envisioning his own participation four years down the road. "I don't know whether I am good enough to make the [Olympic] team," he says. "I have to keep working and improving. But I'm pretty sure that my being gay will have no effect on where I end up. It's all up to me."…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The College Sports Closet: Increased Attention from the NCAA and Pressure Applied by Gay Activists May Finally Even the Playing Field for Gay Athletes. (Athletics). Contributors: Bull, Chris - Author. Magazine title: The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine). Publication date: March 5, 2002. Page number: 26+. © 2008 Regent Media. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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