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Gay couple defend Iowa St. women's basketball

Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly

ESPN the Magazine has an important and timely article out about homophobia in women's college basketball ("On homophobia and recruiting"). It addresses the subject of "negative recruiting," a topic we have written about regularly at Outsports. The story opens by dealing with the program at Iowa State, where inferences are drawn. It is attracting criticism from what might be an unlikely source: a gay couple who are huge supporters of the Iowa State program.

Matt Schuler and Robert Alden, legally married in Iowa, live in Ames, Iowa, and have been longtime Outsports readers. Both are also frequent posters on our Discussion Board, Matt as "Cyclone Matt" and Robert as "tbbucsalstott." They have attended Iowa State women's games for years, are close with many in the program, and Coach Bill Fennelly attended their wedding reception. I found their perspective on the Iowa State program and homophobia to be worthwhile to share.

Here is the relevant section of the ESPN article:

During one teen's big moment, a heart-to-heart with Iowa State's Bill Fennelly, the decorated coach of 23 years sang an insistent refrain. "He kept drilling that 'this would be a family,'" says the player, who asked not to be named. "'You should come here,' he said, 'because we're family-oriented.'"

To the recruit, those seemingly comforting words cloaked a deeper meaning. Two of the four schools she was considering were purported to employ lesbians on their staffs. Her stop in Ames, in fact, was on the heels of a trip to one of those allegedly "gay programs." There, coaches avoided discussing anyone's off-court lives. Iowa State, in contrast, pushed the personal hard. "They threw it out constantly," says the player, who became a Cyclone. "'Iowa has morals, and people who live here have values, wholesome values.'" The implication, to her and to another former Cyclone who confirmed her account, was that at other schools, "there's something going on you don't know."

The messaging continued after she joined the Iowa State squad and started to help recruit younger players. Coaches told all the Cyclones to emphasize their "environment" to any visiting recruits: married head coach, straight assistants, kids running underfoot. "Tell them we're family- oriented," the player recalls. "According to the coaches, it needed to be said." ...

Fennelly, on the other hand, says he pushes Iowa State's familial spirit because that's what he has to sell. It's all positive, and anyone who thinks otherwise is distorting what he and his school stand for. "I think what's happening," he says, "is, in an odd way, my staff is being penalized because they're married and have families." The coach, one of the few in the women's game willing to speak on the record about the subject, denies that he or any of his staff has ever used the term "wholesome" to recruit a player. But, Fennelly adds, "if using the word 'family' is viewed as negative recruiting, then we're guilty, because we say that. I don't think it's negative. Maybe I'm the only one in America who thinks that's ridiculous to say."

Matt -- along with Robert -- wrote their observations on the article and what they have experienced following the Iowa State program:

The article from did a terrible job in presenting Iowa State's women's basketball program in any sort of fair light. The story makes it appear that an atmosphere of homophobia is rampant at Iowa State and that it is used negatively on the recruiting trail. As someone who would consider himself to be fairly close to the program, I can say that this is simply not true.

Robert and I started going to Iowa State women's basketball games at the beginning of the 1997-98 season. A game against Creighton in November 1998 was the last home game I've missed. I attended my 200th consecutive home game on Jan. 2.

When the program blossomed in the last decade, Robert and I used to be known as the "3-point land guys." We had a large banner with a Cartoon Cy (the mascot) and "3 Point Land" on it. Every time ISU would hit a 3 at a home game, Robert would jump out of his seat and hang a white sign with a big red 3. The most 3s the team hit in one game was 18, which at the time tied the national record. From doing the signs, we gained some notoriety locally, with articles appearing in the Ames and Des Moines newspapers. With that recognition, we were able to mingle with some of the players' families and the players themselves. Over time, we got to know the players, many of the parents and eventually all the coaching staff.

We have been fortunate enough to be invited into the family of Iowa State women's basketball. And it truly is a "family." That word has been hijacked by the far right and has taken on a negative connotation, especially when paired with the word "values." But when ISU coach Bill Fennelly speaks of "family," he speaks of his program as a whole. He's proud of his assistant coaches, their families, and the dedication they show to their jobs. He's also proud of all the fans, gay and straight, who fill the stands for each game. And I know he's proud of the girls that have been a part of this program over the last 15 seasons.

"Family" is a real selling point for Iowa State. You can't sell a recruit on the weather or the big city amenities of Ames. Aside from the history of success Iowa State has had since Fennelly's arrival, he tries to sell the true sense of being a family at Iowa State. He only wants to be surrounded by the best and that includes coaches, student assistants, and players. He looks for two things when he recruits a prospect to come to Iowa State: Are they a good and respectful person and are they a good player? He's not the type of person who is going to judge anyone by their orientation. He just wants the best he can get. To insinuate anything else from supposed "code words" used in the recruiting process is asinine. The Fennellys do go to church and are open about faith, but they don't wear it on their sleeves. "Like" speaks to "like" and a church-going person is going to tend to be drawn to fellow church-going people. That's not going to be an issue as long as there is the understanding of respect towards your teammates, coaches, family, and fans. If you don't show that respect, you're not going to get recruited to play at Iowa State.

Never once have we heard anything homophobic or negative from Coach Fennelly. He and his wife, Deb, have always been welcoming to us, as have the rest of the coaching staff. Had a former player not had her wedding on the same night as ours (July 17 of last year), we would have seen many people from the team and the coaching staff at our ceremony. As it was, the Fennellys came back early to Ames from over an hour away to spend time at our reception. Robert and I had a former player as a part of our wedding party, had other members of the team, past and present, in attendance, along with many parents of players we have met over the years.

I won't say that there haven't been people associated with the program who probably have had some sort of an issue with gay players or fans over the years, but they have always been respectful from what we have seen. We don't expect everyone to like us or want to spend time with us, but there is the expectation that we would be treated as anyone else. That's been the case all along. I have also never heard of any problems from within the team itself. There was a recent prominent player (whom I will not name as I have not discussed this with her personally) who was out to the team and staff and never had a problem with anyone. We would absolutely have heard about it from her had there been conflicts with teammates or anyone else.

I will be the first one to admit that "family values" used in the context of recruiting would raise a red flag of caution in my mind. When you know the details first-hand, you are able to see for yourself what is real and what is imaginary.

Matt Schuler and Robert Alden
Ames, Iowa

The ESPN story is well worth reading since it does a thorough job of exploring a subject that is still often spoken about in hush-hush tones. But Schuler and Alden give an on-the-ground perspective that is also valuable and adds to the debate.

Update: I got this comment from Helen Carroll, who runs the NCLR sports project, is quoted in the ESPN piece and is one of my all-time favorite people:

If nothing else, the differing views concerning the Iowa State basketball program certainly shows how lesbians and/or single straight women fight to keep the topic of lesbians on campus, or on their team-away from parents.

This is prevalent in the top programs in the nation. Of course, there are success stories like Sherri Murrell at Portland state, whose recruiting is just fine. I do wish more coaches could have the support to be open about their sexual orientation with straight men and women coaches being vocal allies around this topic in recruiting.

That does mean that the coaches talk to the parents and the athlete and say that they, as coaches, expect that there are/will be lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes on their team. That strengthens the team. The coach could even bring it up before the parents ask. That is what I used to do as a coach and 9 out of 10 times it worked out successfully.