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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- College athletics is gradually becoming more inclusive for gay students. But if athletes are ever able to participate openly without fear of discrimination, it will require coaches and administrators to foster a holistically welcoming environment, from initial meetings with recruits to the halftime pep talks in the locker room.

"If" is the operative word.

On Saturday, here at the annual meeting of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's College Sport Research Institute, a panel of gay athletes, administrators and researchers agreed that this progress is imminent. But they differed on how quickly it can happen.

Eric Anderson, a sociologist at Britain's University of Winchester who studies gay athletes in sport, pointed to three recent experiences as reason to be optimistic. In the first, Anderson was spending time with a high school running team as part of his research. One of the students had come out as gay at practice a few days prior, and his teammates' response was encouraging: "It was literally just 'Oh, cool,' and then back to the conversation," Anderson said.

And in two recent pieces of research, Anderson found that 70 percent of athletes at three Southern institutions would support having a gay teammate, while in England, 97.5 percent of 271 incoming freshman athletes said they would have no problem with a gay teammate or coach.

"In 20 years, I don't think this will be an issue in any capacity, even for football players," Anderson said, noting that homophobia is worse in some sports than others. "But I'm not a prophet." There will always be some holdouts, he acknowledged.

"I'm not so positive," said Vikki Krane, a professor and director of women's studies at Bowling Green State University. "I think we'll be having similar discussions [in 20 years] -- maybe not the exact same.... we have a lot of work to do to make it happen in sports."

Krane pointed to women's sports -- which, panelists said -- despite the common assumption that the hyper-macho realm of football is the worst place to be a gay athlete -- are particularly problematic. For evidence, look no further than the rampant "negative recruiting," in which coaches not-so-subtly hint to prospects that if they want a "family atmosphere" -- read: no lesbians allowed -- this is the team for them. This phenomenon fosters an obviously unwelcoming climate for lesbian athletes, but it also aids in a widespread cultural bias against female athletes that has caused many to fear being labeled gay.

"They look at the coaches, they look at the administrators, and the atmosphere in women's sport is still negative," Krane said. "We need a drastic change."

The practice of negative recruiting doesn't just harm students, either.

"It's pitting coaches against each other, which is creating an awful climate for female coaches," who are afraid to come out themselves for fear that parents won't send athletes to their institution or administrators will be hostile toward them, Krane said. "If you can't recruit, you can't compete. You can't compete, you can't keep your job. So there's this whole cloud over women's basketball."

Krane's comments illustrate a key difference between men's and women's sports when it comes to accepting gay athletes. In the hypermasculine culture of many men's sports, the athletes are all assumed to be straight. So when one comes out as gay, Anderson said, his teammates are more likely to accept it and move on.

"But female athletes -- their teammates are gay by association," Anderson said. "Clearly there's a lot more lesbian athletes, but it really does seem that the focus of homophobia is in women's sports more than men's sports."

Krane did credit the National Collegiate Athletic Association for its policy that ensures transgender athletes can compete on the team of their choosing, as long as they follow the rules regarding hormone treatment. The policy, solidified the year after the George Washington University student Kye Allums became the first openly transgender person to play Division I basketball, largely followed the recommendations of advocacy groups.

For Andrew Goldstein, a former Dartmouth College lacrosse player who became the first openly gay man in the United States to be drafted onto a professional sports team, all the negative experiences associated with not being able to be himself stopped after his sophomore season, when he came out to his teammates.

People always ask Goldstein why more professional athletes haven't come out -- "like it's their fault," he said.

"You can't blame them for not coming out. You have to look at the environment around them," Goldstein said. Rather than athletes having to worry about how others will accept them if they decide to come out, coaches and managers should take the initiative to tell everyone: "I run this team; if you're gay, you're O.K."

Anderson noted that only 3 percent of males identify as gay, which comes out to about 30 professional athletes.

"Those who organize and run the sport -- that's who gay athletes are afraid of," he said. "The question is, are they comfortable coming out to the older generation, the sport managers there and the coaches, the NFL publicity people and all of that. Today, the real issue lies with them."

Dealing with those people can be a rude awakening for athletes who are growing up in a society where these issues are far more visible than they once were, where young people -- while still facing a tough journey, to be sure -- are more likely to be happy with who they are.

"They don't face the issues of being discriminated against," said Ariel Germain, an assistant sports information director at North Carolina Central University and a former four-year member of its women's volleyball team. "Once you get older and graduate and go into the world, that's when the reality sets in that, who I am, I might have to hide it."

Both Anderson and Goldstein agreed that male athletes, though, are less concerned about being labeled as gay, and are thus more comfortable being close with and embracing their teammates.

"There's a real shift under way not only in sexuality, but in gender studies as well," Anderson said. "This is absolutely phenomenal, and it's happening at an incredibly rapid rate."

The panelists put it on future athletic administrators (many sports management students attended the conference) to bring in a fresh attitude and phase out discriminatory practices.

"As they learn about these issues and they learn to think differently, they're gonna go out there and make a difference," Krane said. "I think we need to come at this from pretty much every possible direction."

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