College Sports

Prejudice against gays and lesbians hurts women’s college basketball

Sherri Murrell is only openly gay coach in women’s college basketball.
Sherri Murrell is only openly gay coach in women’s college basketball. AP

In an age when gay marriage has gained acceptance across the United States, when the Apple CEO, and an NFL and NBA player have come out, when the WNBA targets gay fans, homophobia remains endemic in women’s college basketball.

It is an issue that has plagued the sport for decades, but few talk about it.

Cindy Russo, who has coached women’s basketball at Florida International University for 40 years, won more than 700 games and seen the sport make great strides, said homophobia remains as much a problem today as it was decades ago.

Parents of recruits still sometimes ask college coaches: “Do you have any gay players on your team?” Heterosexual coaches routinely prey on parents’ fears and religious beliefs, using homophobia as a recruiting tactic to steer high school players away from unmarried female coaches.

“There is a fear among parents that if their son or daughter is around a gay person, it is going to make them gay, like it’s a contagious disease,” Russo said. “There is still so much prejudice and ignorance out there. Male coaches, and some women, will say to parents, ‘Do you know so-and-so’s gay?’ It just takes that to put a little doubt in their minds. And it works.

“I’ve had the question asked many times, how I feel about gay players on the team, or if I have any gay players on my team. I tell them, ‘Honestly, it’s not something I talk about. I can tell you if there are gay people on my team, they are respectable and have high integrity, and to me, that’s all that matters.’ I’m to an age where you just get tired of it.”

Whether the coach is a lesbian or just perceived as one, the stigma is the same. That helps explain why out of 350 Division I women’s basketball coaches, only one is openly gay — Sherri Murrell at Portland (Ore.) State.

In summer 2009, the team’s media relations director asked Murrell if she’d like a photo of her family in the media guide. She thought, “Sure, why not? What’s the big deal? The people who know me know I’m gay, anyway.” She figured it was time to stop hiding. She submitted a photo of herself, her partner, and their twin daughters. The word was out, and news hit the media. No Division I coach had ever publicly declared herself gay, and none has since. She found most people surprisingly accepting.

“For many years, I stayed in the closet because I heard horror stories about recruiting,” Murrell said by phone. “I saw older coaches in the closet and just thought that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The world around us is changing, but our profession is still in the Dark Ages. I was terrified, but I took the plunge, and thankfully, landed in safe water.

“Honestly, I have not had one negative experience. I have had support from 80-year-old boosters, my university, everyone. I know that geographically, it’s easier in Portland than some places in the South, but I’m here to tell lesbian coaches out there, ‘We’ll be OK. Let go of the fear.’

“It was unbelievably liberating to take the white elephant out of the room. Nobody has to tippy-toe around me anymore. Too many darn good coaches have left coaching because of the homophobia. They just couldn’t do a double life, and that breaks my heart.”

Leaving profession

One longtime Division I coach, who requested anonymity, left the profession because she grew tired of the discrimination. She is a lesbian, in her mid-50s, and recalled a typical recruiting trip as a Big Ten assistant. She was with the head coach in the living room of a highly touted recruit in Detroit. The recruit’s mother asked the head coach, “You don’t have those kind of people working for you, do you?” The coach replied, “Absolutely not. I would not stand for it.”

The gay assistant felt a pit in her stomach. But she stayed silent. For three decades.

“We felt we had to hide to keep our jobs,” she said.

The anti-gay sentiment is not always that blatant, but the undercurrent is still there, and it has driven generations of female coaches out of the business or deeper into the closet. Often, the homophobia is thinly veiled, spoken in code words all too familiar within the sport’s inner circles.

Heterosexual coaches on the recruiting trail flaunt their straightness with photos of spouses and children, boasting that their programs are steeped in “family values” while insinuating that a competing coach is gay or runs a gay-tolerant program that does not foster a “family culture.”

When Robin Pingeton was introduced as head coach at the University of Missouri in April 2010, she had her husband and 3-year-old son by her side. She said: “I’m a Christian that happens to be a coach…. I’m very blessed to have my staff here. This is something very unique, I think, for Division I women’s basketball to have a staff that the entire staff is married with kids. Family is important to us, and we live it every day.”

More male coaches

Homophobia and the exodus of lesbian coaches might at least partly explain why so many men are being hired to coach women’s sports. When Title IX legislation passed in 1972, requiring equal sports opportunities for females, more than 90 percent of women’s teams were coached by women. In 2013, it was less than 40 percent, according to separate studies by Brooklyn College professors Vivian Acosta and Linda Jean Carpenter, and the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

“The numbers do not lie,” said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center. “It certainly is not the case that there is only one lesbian in women’s basketball.

“That fact alone, that only one has come out, is such a powerful and symbolic statement about how much fear there is. It’s going to take a very well-established, well-respected Division I coach to come out. Someone is going to have to be the Jackie Robinson of women’s college coaching.”

Murrell had no intention of being a trailblazer. “I didn’t want to be Googled and the first thing that comes up is ‘Only Out Lesbian Coach,’” Murrell said. “But after getting so many heartbreaking emails and calls from coaches, saying things like, ‘I want to be out and I’m not even out to my grandmother,’ or ‘I want to be out but my head coach is homophobic,’ I realized I am helping make change.”

Persistent problem

High school and AAU coaches say homophobia in recruiting remains rampant.

“Oh, yeah, that definitely is a big issue,” said Miguel Diaz, co-founder of the Miami Suns, a girls’ elite basketball program that has produced hundreds of college players including WNBA stars Sylvia Fowles and Eriana Larkins. “Now more than ever. Coaches’ salaries are escalating, stakes are higher, the pressure to win is greater, so the gloves come off and the mudslinging gets dirty.”

Pat Griffin, professor emeritus at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, has been conducting LGBT sports education workshops for more than 20 years. She hasn’t seen as much change as she would like.

“I call it the glass closet,” Griffin said. “Coaches are in the closet, but everyone knows they’re there. If you’ve lived your whole life believing it’s necessary to conceal your private life from everybody in your professional life, it’s really difficult to make that change and believe it’s going to be OK if you come out.

“We’ve reached a point where older coaches who go by old-school philosophy that you have to be closeted in order to stay in the profession and be successful in a sad way have become an obstacle to younger coaches coming out.”

Griffin was hired by Penn State to meet with the athletic department in 2007, when women’s basketball coach Rene Portland was forced to resign after 27 years at the school amid allegations that she did not tolerate gay players on her team.

Portland had a longstanding policy: No Drinking. No Drugs. No Lesbians. She was accused of forcing gay players off the team. Asked about it at the time by the Chicago Sun-Times, she said: “I will not have it in my program. I bring it up, and the kids are so relieved, and the parents are so relieved.”

A highly publicized lawsuit filed by former player Jen Harris led to Portland’s resignation.

University of Miami coach Katie Meier says she is “proud we have a spectrum of diversity” on her team.

“A Rene Portland situation should not happen anymore,” Meier said. “At this point, your sexuality is the same thing as your race, and I think society has evolved. If [homophobic tactics are] still going on in women’s basketball recruiting, they’re in trouble because to be that way and segment a society, you’re going to miss some really special young people. It’s discrimination, straight up.”

Maybe so, but homophobia didn’t go away with Portland.

Last year, when Baylor star Brittney Griner came out as gay, she told ESPN that although Baylor coach Kim Mulkey knew she was gay and accepted it, she told Griner and her teammates not to talk about it publicly.

“It was a recruiting thing,” Griner told ESPN. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”

Some parents fear that a lesbian role model will turn their daughters gay. Some girls share their parents’ fears.

“There is something unique about the sporting environment that we should not be dismissive of, and the kinds of pressures that puts on coaches,” said Kane. “There are few professions where you have an older adult and younger adult in very close, physically intimate quarters, in hotels, locker rooms, on nights and weekends.”

Jolynn Schneider, 48, played for top-ranked Iowa in the late 1980s and now lives in Key West. She was heavily recruited out of Regina High, a Catholic school in Harper Woods, Mich.

“I have to admit, I chose Iowa in large part because Vivian Stringer was married and had a family,” Schneider said. “I come from a sheltered Catholic home, third of seven children. I had no experience with gay people, so I went with what I was most comfortable with as a 17-year-old.

“I remember going on one recruiting trip and the coach took me out to dinner and she looked so masculine that the waitress called her “Sir,” and thought we were on a date. I remember that being awkward. I know a lot more now than I did then. One thing I can tell you, in all my years at Iowa, no teammate or coach ever hit on me. I had my boyfriend, my sorority. Everyone minded their own business.”

Reassuring parents

Carla Harris, a former UM player and now head coach at her alma mater Norland High, has had many parents express fears of having their daughters exposed to lesbians. She tells them not to worry.

“I haven’t had any of my kids come back from college converted,” Harris said. “If they came back gay it’s because they were already gay. Maybe they cut their hair short, stopped straightening their hair, stopped dressing as girly, because in college they feel more freedom to be who they are, but they didn’t become gay because they had a gay coach or teammate.

“In all my years at UM, there were never any issues between straight and gay players. As long as everyone stays in their lane, everything is fine.”

But because of the prejudices, some gay coaches try to play it straight by wearing makeup, high heels and tight skirts. Among athletes, heterosexuals sometimes glamorize themselves to avoid being labeled as gay. They grow ponytails, wear makeup and nail polish. In softball, there is a not-so-secret credo: “No bow? Lesbo.”

One lesbian high school girls coach in Florida who has not come out explained: “I tried to present a feminine picture to the audience, parents and administrators. I was conditioned to believe that the real me was not socially acceptable.”

She says her players and some of their parents might suspect her homosexuality, but she is choosing to keep her sexuality private — at least for now.

“There are parents who will be judgmental,” she said. “It’s really hard because I have girls coming out to me, seeking guidance, and I am fighting the same battles they are but I can’t tell them that. Maybe someday I’ll come out, but for now, I’m not ready to wave the rainbow flag.”

As head girls’ basketball coach at Miami High, Sam Baumgarten has had a front row seat at the recruitment of dozens of talented players during his 23 years in the business. His most coveted and high-profile star, 6-4 center Beatrice Mompremier, on Wednesday chose Baylor over Tennessee, Miami, North Carolina and Ohio State. Notre Dame, Florida, Florida State, Louisville and LSU also wooed her.

Baumgarten has witnessed homophobic tactics in recruiting but said that as far as he knows, it never came up with Mompremier. “She never mentioned anything about any coach’s sexual orientation,” he said. “She felt most comfortable with Coach Mulkey’s personality and coaching style, but she really liked a lot of the coaches who recruited her. It came down to basketball. She’s a girly-girl, and she’ll be who she is whether her coach is gay or straight. That made no difference to her.”

Veteran Northwestern High coach Clyde Glover has had parents prohibit daughters from playing basketball.

“Some of these families are devout Christians and it is a religious issue, and they will steer their daughters to volleyball or track because they think there are fewer gay girls in those sports.

“We’ve had a few girls who are lesbian on our team the past few years, and we don’t put them on an island. They are all Lady Bulls. They have the same rules. They have to dress professional. And they can’t bring their dates to practice.”

Cleve Roberts’ two daughters played at Norland and went on to play in college — Clenese at Bethune-Cookman and Cleandra at Long Island University.

“There were some gay girls on the teams when our girls played, but we never instructed them not to hang out with them,” Roberts said. “I’d have no problem with my daughter playing for a gay coach. That’s the world we live in now. There’s no place you can go and hide, unless you move to a private island.”

Wistful thinking

There are days the retired gay coach wishes she was still on the sideline — especially when she reads of men being hired to coach women’s teams.

“I feel bad that I’m not out there because my generation of coaches was the next group after Pat Summitt and Vivian Stringer, but there’s part of me that is so happy I don’t have to hide who I am every day,” she said. “That’s why so many women leave the profession. Would you want to deal with this? It’s exhausting.

“I remember meeting Sherri Murrell back in the late ’90s, and she was very forthcoming and open, and I kept looking at her and thinking, `Wow! You can live your life. I wonder what that feels like.”

She found out when she left coaching and took a retail job.

“I’ll never forget, one day I was working at the shop and a hairdresser from a salon across the street walked up to the counter and says, ‘Are you gay?’” she recalled. “I had to swallow really hard. Saying it then, and even saying it now, it’s hard because keeping quiet is like armor that we wear to protect ourselves.

“I said to myself, ‘OK, you’re not coaching anymore. You can just answer this question. It doesn’t matter.’ He asked me, ‘Why aren’t you answering me?’ I said, ‘It’s a long story.’”