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NCAA and Gay Rights Group Take On Homophobia In College Sports

NCAA and Gay Rights Group Take On Homophobia In College Sports

By Lois Elfman

The National Center for Lesbian Rights recently announced a settlement in the discrimination lawsuit filed by Jennifer Harris, a former Pennsylvania State University women’s basketball player who sued the school over alleged mistreatment by former coach Rene Portland, who allegedly thought Harris was a lesbian. Although virtually all colleges and universities have non-discrimination policies in place, the case has propelled discussions about homophobia in college sports. Last fall, the NCLR and the NCAA co-hosted the “Think Tank on Homophobia in Sport,” bringing together coaches, administrators and athletes to discuss an issue that’s been receiving increasing national attention.

“The basis of the think tank was to move from conversation and actually get into action,” says Helen Carroll, NCLR’s sports project director. “I felt that people were not giving lip service, they were really ready to commit.” Carroll is a former college athletic director and coached the University of North Carolina’s women’s basketball team to the NAIA National Championship in 1984.

She says one of the things that helped that team win the title was the fact that the coaches and players openly acknowledged their diversity and therefore found common ground.

“We in sports have said, ‘You leave all that at the door and you get on the court and just play.’ That’s not true. Athletes don’t leave that at the door, because it’s who they are,” Carroll says. “If you can find a way to take that full personality and pull it into the game, then that’s what gives you the special qualities you see in teams that can win national championships.

“We as coaches and administrators have not been taught how to do it, how to talk about these topics,” she continues. “They’re not easy topics to sit down and talk about with a group. Whether it’s race or sexual orientation — to even say it out loud and recognize it to your athletes — it makes a huge difference.”

Karen Morrison, the NCAA’s director of education services, says materials developed at the think tank are now being vetted by
the organization, which will determine this spring how those materials will be disseminated.

Notes from the think tank have already been distributed to coaching academies and to committees planning coaching conferences. Carroll says she hopes NCLR will soon have downloadable materials about recruiting practices available on their Web site.

Morrison suggests that the NCAA’s Principles for Conduct in Intercollegiate Athletics serve as a guide for college administrators.

“It is the individual institutions who are responsible for their own campus environments,” Morrison says.

Adds Carolyn Schlie Femovich, the executive director of the Patriot League Conference, “Institutions need to make sure that their coaching staffs and administrators are educated around the issue and have proactive strategies for dealing with it.”

She also says it is unreasonable to place the burden on student-athletes — administrators must take control.

“One of the things they have to teach coaches and administrators is that regardless of their own personal beliefs, there is a standard that the university expects them to uphold,” agrees Carroll.

Lauren Ruffin, an openly gay former basketball player at Division III Mount Holyoke College, says she was stunned by the homophobia she saw after joining the staff of a high-profile Division I summer basketball camp. She says she kept quiet about her sexuality, but she recalls
an uncomfortable conversation with a camp colleague.

She said, ‘I hate playing women’s sports because all these girls are dykes. We all get a reputation. I wish gays just wouldn’t play basketball. It would give basketball a better name.’ I won’t say that I was scared, but I was definitely uncomfortable,” Ruffin recalls. “That was the point where I realized I was so blessed to have picked the school I picked. ”

Ruffin says Mount Holyoke was nonjudgmental and used only positive recruiting, and she is working to see that philosophy become the recruiting standard.

“You’re not just recruiting an athlete, you’re recruiting a kid and four years of his or her life,” says Ruffin. “What kind of place can you be where you think it’s okay to make someone’s sexual orientation a factor? It’s really up to administrators to set the tone and to say, ‘We’re not going to tolerate this behavior.’”

–Lois Elfman

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