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. …