When the University of Missouri’s just-hired women’s basketball coach spoke at a press conference this month, her message couldn’t have been much clearer.
“I’m a Christian that happens to be a coach,” Robin Pingeton -- who was hired away from Illinois State University -- said as her husband and three-year-old son looked on. “My values are very important to me.”
Though her mention of religion might have rubbed some observers the wrong way, it gave players, fans and others at the university a sense of who she was. But in women’s athletics, where there’s often an undercurrent of homophobia and a sense that female players and coaches need to “prove” they’re straight, Pingeton’s comments, along with what she said a few minutes later, seemed to be sending a message about more than just her faith.
“I’m very blessed to have my staff here,” she said. “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.”
Helen J. Carroll, sports project director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said she thought Pingeton’s comments were a way of “subtly proving that everyone in their program was straight.” Pingeton’s mention of her religion, Carroll added, “was yet again, a subtle way of saying being lesbian or being gay would be against religious values and isn’t what our program is about.”
Women’s college basketball has a long and persistent history of struggles over players and coaches’ sexuality. Two women who coached Mesa College’s women’s basketball team alleged they were fired and discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and their attempts to bring greater gender equity to the San Diego, Calif., institution’s women's athletic programs. A lawsuit was resolved partly in their favor late last year.
In 2007, Rene Portland, who spent 27 years as Pennsylvania State University's women’s basketball coach, resigned under a cloud of allegations that she had discriminated against lesbian players, even though she denied the allegations. More than two decades earlier, she had told the Chicago Sun-Times that same-sex relationships were not a part of her team’s culture. “I will not have it in my program,” she said. (That story, published in 1986, cataloged the fears that some students, parents and coaches had about lesbians in women's basketball.)
Given that history, Pat Griffin, a longtime advocate for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in athletics, also had a strong reaction to Pingeton's comments. “When the coach leads with a description of herself as a Christian and boasts at her first press conference about how straight her assistant coaches are,” the University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emerita wrote on her blog, “you have to wonder about what kind of team climate she will promote for student-athletes who are not Christian or who are not heterosexual.”
Kate Lakin, an assistant director of media relations for the women’s basketball team at Missouri, said Pingeton has since explained to one reporter who visited campus that her comments were misinterpreted. “Fostering a family atmosphere didn't mean anything other than building a community feeling,” Lakin said.
Griffin said she couldn’t help but conclude that Pingeton’s comments were a way of signaling to recruits and their families that her team would not be a gay-friendly place. “Is she beginning her recruiting efforts already by sending a not-so-subtle message to potential athletes and parents that Missouri is now a Christian heterosexual team?”
Tom Rogeberg, executive vice president of communications and marketing at the Kansas City, Mo.-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes, declined to be interviewed, but pointed to a comment posted on the student newspaper’s website. The comment, he wrote in an e-mail message, came from “one of her former players who is living in a gay lifestyle and has/had no difficulties with her coach. Instead of those who are wondering what the new coach will do, perhaps her former player would be best to ask.”
The comment is from “Jane Doe,” who identified herself as one of Pingeton’s former players at St. Ambrose University, in Davenport, Iowa, and “openly in a same-sex relationship with my partner of nearly six years with a son,” before defending the coach. “She develops a family atmosphere with her players and teams,” Doe wrote. “As a player, she NEVER pushed her personal religious beliefs upon myself and I never witnessed it being done to any other teammate. We were not subject to bible studies. Just because someone mentions they are CHRISTIAN doesn’t mean they hate gays.”
Regardless of what Pingeton meant to say and how it was perceived, Carroll, who coached the women’s basketball team at the University of North Carolina at Asheville in the 1980s and was athletic director at Mills College in the 1990s, said she thought that, within academe, the debate was unique to women’s athletics.
“I don’t think a university president would say anything like that,” she said. “But I also don’t think a football coach would say anything like that. The real message in women’s sports is, ‘I’m going to prove I’m straight.’ ”