When the Coach Said 'Faggot'

August 6, 2009

I came across the story of University of Hawaii football coach Greg McMackin’s bad behavior a little late, which in this era of the 24-hour news cycle was approximately one day. This meant I was reading editorials rather than breaking news stories. What struck me most -- initially -- about the coverage of the incident was that I could not actually find the details of the incident itself. It took me quite a long time -- at least 10 minutes, which, in high-speed internet time, is a lengthy period -- to find out exactly what McMackin said. I saw phrases like “gay slur,” “term offensive to gay people,” “derogatory term used against gay people.” But what was it? What had he said? I couldn’t even find the context of his statement right away.

But after several Google searches, I ended up on a sports blog not known for mincing words -- theirs or McMackin’s. It was the f-word -- the other one -- used in reference to the chant the University of Notre Dame football team does before games, in particular before their bowl game last year when they beat the University of Hawaii. Laughter erupted during the press conference when McMackin called the ritual a “faggot dance.” Oh, wait, am I not supposed to use the word? McMackin used it three times seemingly knowing each time he said it that he was digging himself deeper. (A recording may be found here.)

It is, as Wikipedia will tell you, a “highly pejorative term.” But what kind of understanding are we creating when we cannot even talk about the situation without using abstractions? The laughter from the reporters in the press conference and the subsequent erasure of the word and the details by most media outlets suggests that most know there is something wrong with the word. But what exactly it is remains more ambiguous. I hear people asking how “faggot” compares with other derogatory words -- most notably the “n-word.” This is not the most productive discussion, either. Hierarchizing oppression and the history of oppressed peoples does not often create awareness or engender social change.

Some might argue that punishing McMackin by suspending him and cutting his $1 million+ salary will not either. But McMackin is being punished -- and rightly so -- because he is a university employee and his employer has a code of conduct. But no one should be shocked that a university employee would utter such a word. Or rather, we should not be surprised that McMackin uttered it. This is not a personal attack -- I don’t know him. But, as the football coach, he is not really part of university culture in the way that, for example, an economics professor or residence hall director is. McMackin is part of football culture. And in football culture, even football culture that exists within a university setting, homophobic comments are commonplace -- and accepted, even today, and even as most know that "faggot" is a derogatory term. And that is part of the reason for the laughter: an awkward collision of cultures.

In high school I played tennis on courts adjacent to the football team’s practice field. And thus I and my teammates were privy to all the anti-gay terms (allegedly used for encouragement) offered by the head coach, who was also a physical education teacher at the school. No one said anything. Not even the coaches of my team -- also school employees. That was over a decade ago. But I doubt the situation has improved much. The mistake McMackin made was saying faggot in public and directing it toward an opposing team. But it is likely that he has used it before in less public settings. A press conference is not the first place one tries out a word like that. But even if he has not, he has heard someone say it; and so have all his players. And so have the players for Notre Dame. In fact, it would be difficult to find a football player or a coach who has not at least heard the word faggot used during games or practices or locker room talk.

McMackin will undergo some form of sensitivity training as part of his punishment. It is unfortunate that learning about hateful language and diversity and tolerance is couched as punishment these days -- that colleges and schools bring in the diversity trainers to athletic departments when someone behaves badly. This cultural divide that exists within university settings between athletic departments and everybody else is not productive.

There is an assumption that all non-athletic department university employees are enlightened and those within athletic departments are uneducated and small-minded. Neither assumption is true, but to the extent that colleges and universities care about the cultures of all their departments with regard to basic tolerance, they shouldn’t be looking the other way at what goes on regularly, without being recorded at a press conference. In short, universities are not necessarily doing the best job talking about these issues either. Again, there is a “we know it’s wrong, but we’re not quite sure why” kind of mentality that actually impedes productive discourse about discrimination generally and homophobia specifically.

This is not to say that the University of Hawaii, or any other university that has experienced something similar, has done the wrong thing in mandating diversity training after such an incident. Rather, I mention it as my own little attempt to eradicate the “us versus them" mentality that is at the core of this and other instances of discrimination and hate speech.

My hope is that McMackin is able to take something from the learning experience he is being presented with rather than resent the way it has arisen. But he must also pass on what he learns to his players, to his assistant coaches, to his recruits -- heck, he might even teach those reporters in the room with him something by the time he is done. He, like all coaches, must be a leader. And he, like other members of the university community of which he is a part, must adhere to, as well as set, a standard for behavior.


Kristine Newhall is a Ph.D. candidate in women’s studies at the University of Iowa and one of the authors of Title IX Blog.

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