When NBA free agent Jason Collins came out, it made headlines. Soccer’s Robbie Rogers, recently signed with L.A. Galaxy, broke the final barrier: an out gay male playing for a major U.S. pro team. Women’s sports have long been more accepting, so much so that when No. 1 WNBA draft pick Brittney Griner came out, the media hardly noticed. As co-editor of Outsports.com, I receive a constant flood of inquiries from the public and sportswriters asking if this means we’ve finally won the long battle for full acceptance.
Not even close. What the sea change in the pros has done is highlight how far high school and college sports teams lag behind. I keep hearing of another outed coach being dismissed or another student harassed into quitting.
According to a study released earlier this year by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, over half of LGBT high school students reported being harassed in gym class based on their sexual orientation. Over a quarter of varsity athletes faced such harassment.
Take North Dakota State College of Science football player Jamie Kuntz, thrown off the squad for kissing his boyfriend at a game. Even at a supposedly enlightened elite school like Yale, Stefan Palios, an out varsity shot put and discus thrower, recalls a teammate telling him to stay out of a conversation because “the men are talking.”
Pro athletes’ trash talk may still occasionally include insults like “faggot,” but Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin’s experience is typical. He once told me gay slurs were common in school, but he heard none during his 12 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. Partly, it’s a matter of sheer numbers. Major league soccer, baseball, football, men’s and women’s basketball, and hockey together represent only 6,000 active athletes, whereas 400,000 athletes play in the NCAA, and 7.5 million on the high school level.
As usual, when homophobia rears its ugly head, religion is often the justification. Earlier this year, a Catholic high school principal in Columbus, Ohio, fired coach and physical education instructor Carla Hale after an outraged parent spotted a reference to Hale’s female partner in her mother’s paid newspaper obituary. After Belmont University soccer coach Lisa Howe announced she was having a baby with her female partner, the nondenominational Christian school in Nashville, Tennessee, fired her as well.
In many cases, it’s the coaches themselves who are the problem. As Woody Allen said, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym”—often badly. Too many coaches are bigoted, insensitive former star athletes reliving their glory days. That nostalgia extends to the taunting of their own beloved coaches. “The culture from the past many of them bring is really toxic,” says Pat Griffin, a former coach turned sports activist. Coaching at many schools is a part-time activity. “Most schools are thrilled to have a warm body,” Griffin says. “So they end up with people who may or may not know the sport they’re coaching—or the laws they’re responsible for.”
Colleges are even worse. Rutgers fired its male basketball coach after a video of him using homophobic taunts on players went viral, only to recruit another bullying varsity coach to head its tarnished athletics program. What happened at Penn State only proved that universities only care about abusive coaches if anyone finds out about it. Or not: Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland was able to continue in her job after it became known that she refused to allow out lesbian players on the team.
The media frenzy surrounding Collins’s coming out provided Robert McGarry with a teachable moment. For McGarry, who heads GLSEN’s sports initiative, Changing the Game, “The greater impact is for coaches to realize there are LGBT athletes on their teams, and talented ones. It’s a wake-up call for coaches that they have to be working toward issues of inclusion and respect.”
Out gay coaches could help show the way—if they weren’t so afraid of losing their jobs. Way too many parents, school boards, and administrators still fear blowback from the stereotype of the predatory coach, a staple of dramas like Personal Best, the 1982 movie in which a lesbian coach seduces a track star and fumes when she drops her for a guy, and sometimes in real life by scumbags like Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky.
One closeted coach in a suburban New York high school used Collins’s coming out as an opportunity for his players to express their own reactions to the idea of an out gay teammate. Two of them readily admitted their discomfort with sharing a locker room, which only reinforced the fear for this coach (who asked to remain anonymous). The problem, he notes, begins at home. “These kids aren’t ready to think on their own yet,” he tells me. “If they’re in a home that isn’t accepting, most kids will go with what they’re told.”
A handful of organizations like GO! Athletes, You Belong, and Changing the Game have been educating coaches to change the culture on the high school level. But private organizations with limited funds can only do so much. In severely underfunded public schools, such training is not just a low priority—it’s a nonstarter. Griffin believes that it’s beyond time for the pro teams, which all have community service wings, to add their star power to the effort. The NBA has taken the first step by agreeing to provide clinicians, athletes, and jersey giveaways to You Belong Initiative’s first LGBT youth basketball camp, to be held in Chicago next month.
Pro sports have long defined the essence of masculinity in American culture. The super-macho players have epitomized what it is to be a “real man.” Now they’re leading the way in a redefinition of sports that doesn’t bash gays, but welcomes them. But with the pro leagues openly accepting LGBT players, isn’t it time that our educational institutions realize the key role they’ve been playing in fostering homophobia? Until they make genuine inclusion a top priority, they’ll continue to teach jocks that, when it comes to sports, gay is definitely not OK. ❤