By Ted Rybka
Each year at the NCAA Convention, coaches, athletic directors, students and faculty members gather to share information, address problems and figure out the best way to integrate academics and sports. Some of the housekeeping and logistical stuff can be incredibly boring (it probably takes at least four carafes of coffee per person to get through a bylaws committee meeting). But interesting topical issues of the day are tackled as well.

At the NCAA’s gay student-athlete issues panel are (l-r) John Amaechi, Laurie Priest, Jill Pilgrim, Neil Giuliano.

This year’s convention was held in Nashville, Jan. 10 to 14. Throughout the weekend there were symposiums on women of color in college athletics, hazing prevention, and scholarly approaches to intercollegiate sports.
On Saturday morning in Presidential Ballroom B, a gay-themed panel titled “Time Out! A conversation about including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) student-athletes” took place.
The panel is the brain child of Pat Griffin, an advocate with the Women’s Sports Foundation. Griffin originally connected with Charlotte Westerhaus, the NCAA’s Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion. At Westerhaus’ urging, Griffin encouraged the creation of the panel and suggested the annual convention as the time and place to do it.
Westerhaus and Griffin brought together former NBA player John Amaechi (no stranger to Outsports readers), Neil G. Giuliano (president of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and Laurie Priest (chair of physical education and athletic director of Mount Holyoke College). Jill Pilgrim (general counsel for the Ladies Professional Golf Association), moderated the panel. What resulted was 90 minutes of compelling stories, questions and answers.
The panel was well-attended, with approximately 250 people partaking. Griffin believes that the time has come for the issue of LGBT student-athletes and jokingly said, “I remember the day when sessions like this were either sparsely attended or only attended by women with short hair and comfortable shoes.”
But more soberly, she related that it used to be professionally risky to attend such a session. “These changes are exciting,” said Griffin. “When I worked with coaches up until about five years ago, it was a tough sell to convince them they should even think about LGBT issues in sport. Now, they, most of them, don't need to be persuaded.”
The panelists addressed why coaches and athletic directors need to start talking about sexual orientation in the locker room and how to talk about it. Anecdotal stories have shown that after coming out, athletes have felt like they performed better. This aligns with the experience many openly LGBT people have: When we live our lives with authenticity we are more fulfilled and are better able to put our best foot forward.
The panelists agreed that, though many coaches assert that they personally don’t have a problem with sexual orientation and that, therefore, it doesn’t need to be addressed, the reality is students need to be told directly. There doesn’t have to be a big, bold statement. A simple but firm statement on non-discrimination against gender identity and sexual orientation during orientation (and throughout the season) is generally enough to set the right tone.
One of the main points of the panel was the fact that the students themselves were often far more advanced on the subject than the coaches and athletic directors. According to Giuliano, many straight and LGBT student-athletes don’t understand “what the big deal is.”
LGBT student-athletes are out and open at home or with friends and want to be the same with coaches and teammates, but they feel like they have to lead double lives. They could live on the most welcoming and liberal campuses, but as soon as they walk into the locker room, it’s a completely different story.
Driving home this point, Amaechi related how he would sit across from the LGBT student center at Penn State and watch kids walk in and out all day. He would often wonder what it would be like to live that openly and freely. Sadly, he felt like he had a choice. He could “have a life” and be openly gay or he could play basketball, but he couldn’t do both.
Priest attributes this atmosphere to leadership.
“I feel that many collegiate athletic departments are very dominated by straight, white males, and this makes it threatening for women, people of color and GLBT people,” Priest said. “Sports has been an environment where ‘boys become men’ and is very male-dominated. In many departments today, strong women and gay men are just not accepted or welcomed.”
All of the panelists reminded the audience that the NCAA has a strong non-discrimination code and that as athletic directors and coaches they were obligated to uphold it. Priest stated that they had a moral and legal responsibility to protect their students even when their local and national governments wouldn’t.
Amaechi explained that it didn’t matter how good of a basketball player he was, he could have been fired as a professional athlete in any number of states for simply being himself. “To give the idea that you might lose this job for something that is intrinsically you is deeply wounding,” Amaechi shared.
He also declared that any kind of homophobic atmosphere, real or perceived, is damaging. Amaechi said that athletes “don’t play in a vacuum.” Although an athlete may live on a welcoming campus and be accepted by his coaches and teammates, there are always away games. He used to have vivid nightmares of walking through the players’ tunnel wondering how he would be received by opposing teams and fans. And he made it clear that all players are booed because of a bad performance, but being booed or shunned because of your sexual orientation is an entirely different matter.
“It is one thing to be denigrated for lack of performance,” said Amaechi. “It’s something else, completely different, to be denigrated for who you are. It is something entirely different when someone says, ‘It is not your performance today that I find unacceptable, it is you, yourself, as an entity. When you walk down the street, you are unacceptable.’”
So what has to happen to start changing the atmosphere in college athletic departments? Talk and action.
Someone in the audience expressed the need for leadership on this issue. By conducting this panel during such a high profile event, the NCAA is certainly doing that. Westerhaus has proven herself to be a leader and an ally by bringing this issue to the forefront of people’s minds.
But wanting to talk about it and knowing how are different issues. Priest said that as athletic director she interacts with coaches and other athletic directors and that she often runs across this problem.
“I believe that many want to do the right thing but fear they don't know enough or might offend someone or not know all the answers,” explained Priest. “What I tried to get across is that if we wait to know all the answers, we will never take action. Don't be paralyzed on this issue. Be bold, be brave, and we can change the world.”
Giuliano let the audience know that they have resources surrounding them. There are LGBT student organizations on campus as well as local and regional advocacy groups. He also mentioned national organizations such as It Takes a Team, GLAAD’s newly-formed Sports Media program, and Helen Carroll, the sports director at the National Center for Lesbian Rights (a national legal organization that works with all LGBT people).
“I hope the audience left that panel realizing and feeling more empowered to go back to their institutions and confront issues of homophobia in sports on their campus and within their athletic department, acknowledge that they probably have LGBT student-athletes, and just be more forthcoming and more willing to deal with these issues,” Giuliano said. “I think when they do that they will have a more successful athletic program.”
A winning inclusive policy in the locker room will invariably produce winning results in the classroom and on the field, Giuliano said.
Ted Rybka is the Director of Sports Media for GLAAD.