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'Dirty Little Secrets' in Women's Sports

April 30, 2007

Last month's resignation of Louisiana State University's women's basketball coach amid allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct with her players has once again raised an issue that has long dogged women's sports: the perceived prevalence of lesbian coaches. Some advocates for women's athletics fear that the incident involving Pokey Chatman will have negative ramifications for female coaches and encourage the use of "negative recruiting" aimed at some coaches and programs.

Yet, more hopefully, they say the incident is galvanizing discussion around issues of homophobia in women's sports that have long been silently suppressed, and has cast light on the double standard that surrounds player-coach relationships.

“It does have implications for a backlash,” says Helen Carroll, who, as sports project director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, has experienced an uptick in calls from lesbian coaches fearful for their jobs since Chatman’s high-profile March 7 resignation. She’s received two to three calls every week since then, she says, while she typically receives that number in a month.

“I think the reason is that anytime you talk about lesbian issues in sports, it’s been such a silent topic, so if a discussion is not held upfront about the issues, it remains a silent fear and it can be very detrimental to women’s sports," Carroll says.

Regardless of the truth of the allegations, which Chatman’s lawyer, Mary Olive Pierson, dismisses as "hearsay," their very presence in the public sphere has initiated discourse on negative, discriminatory recruiting techniques and homophobia in women’s sports; abuse of power and breaches in coaching ethics; and particular challenges and double standards that female coaches -- particularly lesbian female coaches or others without “heterosexual credentials,” as one expert puts it -- face in finding and keeping their jobs.

Just Wednesday, news broke that Boston College's (male) coach of the women's ice hockey team had resigned after allegations surfaced of inappropriate conduct with an athlete. But as Mary Jo Kane, a professor of kinesiology and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, points out, when male coaches are accused of such indiscretions, their actions are usually perceived as isolated, unfortunate incidents that don't reflect on other male coaches as a group.

Homophobia has helped fuel the creation of a double standard, Kane says. "If and when a male coach is accused of sleeping with one of his players, you don’t have these reverberations around, ‘Should males be coaching females?' No one ever says that," she says.

“Is it the case that a very large component of the history of women’s sports and the current state of affairs in women’s sports that homophobia has had an enormous impact? The answer is an unqualified, ‘Absolutely,’ ” Kane continues. “Does that mean that things aren’t better? Not at all."

For Kane and others, the Chatman case presents a painful irony, coming as it did on the heels of what many women's sports advocates view as a major sign of progress on the homophobia issue: the resignation of Rene Portland as women's basketball coach at Pennsylvania State University. Portland had long been accused of discriminating against lesbian players, and Penn State had long been accused of inappropriately tolerating her behavior. A former player's lawsuit against Portland set in motion a chain of events that led the university to fine her. She resigned last month.

While many saw Portland's resignation as a step toward greater tolerance in intercollegiate women's athletics, the Chatman allegations stand to be a potential setback on three different fronts, Kane says: “One, it reinforces a horrible and inaccurate stereotype of lesbians as sexual predators. Second, it gives athletic directors more degrees of freedom to hire men.

“And third, it may put more into play the whole issue of negative recruiting.”

Negative recruiting -- in which coaches overtly or subtly attempt to discourage potential players from considering another team by suggesting that the coach or players there might be lesbian -- is the most notorious of the types of “destructive, discriminatory actions” that have taken root in the culture of silence, says Pat Griffin, a professor emerita of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and director of “It Takes a Team,” a project that promotes education about sexual orientation in women’s sports.

“It’s one of the dirty little secrets of women’s sports,” adds Kane, “that [negative recruiting] is not an uncommon practice.” While experts say the power of negative recruiting may be on the decline as incoming students and their families grow more tolerant, it still remains more of an issue than many outside the sporting world might imagine.

Yet, while experts say they fear the Chatman allegations could provide ammunition to coaches who already negatively recruit, some, such as Linda Carpenter, a professor emerita of physical education and sport science at Brooklyn College and co-author of a longitudinal study on women in sport, say the coaches who negatively recruit will continue to do so and the ones who don’t are unlikely to use the new allegations as an excuse to start.

But, of course, the recruiting practices stem from the coaches who practice them -- and the proportion of females coaching intercollegiate women’s sports has dropped from more than 90 percent in 1972 (the year Title IX, federal gender equity legislation, was enacted) to 42.4 percent in 2006, according to the “Women in Intercollegiate Sport” study co-produced by Carpenter and R. Vivian Acosta, another professor emerita at Brooklyn College. “The vast majority of athletic directors are male and there’s something called homologous reproduction. Basically, it means that we tend to hire people that look like us,” Carpenter says.

“So in its most innocent form, males tend to hire males. Lurking underneath that may be some hidden beliefs that females bring a greater chance of homosexual behavior than male coaches do,” Carpenter says -- adding, however, that while homophobia may play a role, she doesn’t think it tends to be a major factor in the hiring of female coaches.

Yet, most lesbian coaches do remain closeted -- 12 out of 13 of those interviewed for a 2005 paper, “Identity Tensions in Lesbian Intercollegiate Coaches,” written by Vikki Krane, director of women’s studies at Bowling Green University and a professor in the School of Human Movement, Sport and Leisure Studies, and Heather Barber, a University of New Hampshire associate professor of kinesiology.

“The environment has not been supportive enough for coaches to really be out, keep their jobs and get jobs later on,” says Carroll of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. Even if a home institution proves supportive -- Griffin points out that homophobia in women’s sports varies dramatically by region -- a coach who is a target of negative recruiting could potentially face a competitive disadvantage. “If you’re a real target of negative recruiting,” says Carroll, “you don’t get top athletes and you can’t get a job.”

“There might be a tendency not to hire coaches who can’t present their heterosexual credentials in the form of a husband or a divorce,” Griffin says, discussing potential ramifications of the allegations against LSU’s Chatman. “It puts lesbian coaches more at risk of being targeted by administrators, parents or even athletes who want to get rid of them for one reason or another. It certainly affects their comfort levels.”

The Chatman Case

While no experts on women's athletics defend the conduct described in the allegations against Chatman, many see a real double standard at work. While they concede that many male coaches who face similar accusations have been handed similar sentences (as appears to be the case at Boston College), they say in too many other cases accusations surrounding male coaches and female athletes are met with little more than a wink, and, that, at the least, there's greater opportunity in those situations for due process.

Pierson, Chatman's lawyer, says Chatman resigned under duress during a surprise March meeting held at the peak of championship season to discuss charges levied against her by an assistant coach in February. Pierson says that the university never gave any indication that they had confirmed the allegations of inappropriate conduct involving players that were reported by the assistant coach, and says that Louisiana State officials told her they didn't even know the names of the former athletes in question.

Ray Lamonica, LSU's general counsel, declined to discuss details of the internal investigation or what it entailed. He says, however, that Chatman had discussed plans to resign for more than a week before the meeting and had the option of accepting administrative leave with pay pending further investigation, as per LSU policy, but had opted to resign instead.

Pierson, meanwhile, has threatened to sue the university in part because she says Louisiana State has no written policy governing such conduct -- a claim Lamonica dismisses. Lamonica points to another provision of Chatman's contract requiring "high moral, ethical and academic standards" and a National Collegiate Athletic Association bylaw requiring exemplary conduct. He wrote Pierson that "the law does not preclude the exercise of common sense."

Yet, Pierson argues that, "The reason why large institutions don’t write down policies is so they can have one when they need one and they don’t have one when they don’t. That is a fertile breeding ground for discrimination; that’s all it’s about." She attributes Chatman's treatment first to her race (she's black), second to her gender and third to her sexual orientation. "We're in the Deep South," Pierson says.

Whether race, gender or sexual orientation played a role in Chatman's treatment specifically is impossible to know at this point. But Chris Shelton, a professor in the Department of Exercise & Sport Studies and co-chair of the Project on Women and Social Change at Smith College, says that research shows that as colleges carry out policies that restrict coaches or others in positions of authority from inappropriately fraternizing with their players or students, "those who are most held accountable are lesbians and black men." Shelton describes a chain of “moral panic” that set in upon news of the allegations against Chatman, sparked by homophobia and “this myth that people are being recruited into a lifestyle.”

Shelton, who advocates more in-depth instruction about coach-athlete sexual abuse in coaching education, adds that the implications of the Chatman case extend far beyond issues of homophobia and race in women's sports, and that far more research needs to be done on patterns of abuse more generally: “I’ve had students in my women and sport class who talk about their involvement with a coach and then when I watch them get into the work force, that’s what happens to them within three years. It makes me so upset," Shelton says.

“Every sporting organization from the International Olympic Committee to the NCAA, every coaches' association, everybody takes the position that a romantic relationship between coaches and the athletes that they coach is an unacceptable abuse of power. This is not new news,” says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law and a former Olympic swimming champion. “What I think is different here is that it happens with straight men and women with regularity.... I can tell you there are [male] swimming coaches who are famed for moving from team to team and marrying different swimmers; it’s not until their third or fourth marriage to an athlete that they’re coaching that they start not being able to get a job,” Hogshead-Makar says.

“Whereas with a lesbian coach, it happens one time," she continues, "and she [probably] will never coach again.”

 

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