(This story was published in 2002).

By: Dee White

The last Tuesday in October brought acclaim to NFL veteran Esera Tuaolo for coming out publicly on national television. Two days earlier, gay varsity football players for Rice University in Houston heard their coach demand they stay in the closet.

On October 27, a Sunday, the online edition of the widely respected Chronicle of Higher Education published a lengthy and well-researched article by Jennifer Jacobson titled “The Loneliest Athletes”; the sub-head, “Facing derision in a macho culture, many gay athletes in team sports hide their sexuality”.

In researching the subject, Ms Jacobson contacted the national office of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which referred her to Rice University’s head football coach as a spokesperson for the organization. In the article released on the Web, Ms Jacobson writes that “among the members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which has a large following, is Rice University’s football coach, Ken Hatfield, who says homosexuality clearly conflicts with his religious beliefs. ‘I believe in the Bible,’ he declares.” The article quotes Coach Hatfield as saying that he would consider removing a player from the team for “being gay”.

In Rice University’s administrative offices the next day, Monday, the priority was damage control. After a hastily-called meeting with Coach Hatfield that afternoon, university president Malcolm Gillis released a firmly-worded letter of explanation and apology. He reiterated his and Mr Hatfield’s commitment to the university’s nondiscrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation. Coach Hatfield also apologized, adding that he had “assured the president that I can and will follow the university’s nondiscrimination policy sincerely and completely.” Both letters are reprinted, along with the section of “The Loneliest Athletes” that quotes Ken Hatfield, in the Rice News dated October 31, 2002.

On Tuesday, Rice’s faculty met to unanimously agree on a “strong repudiation” of Mr Hatfield’s remarks. The student newspaper demanded his resignation. That night, Esera Tuaolo demonstrated what a gay pro football player looks like by coming out on national television, HBO’s magazine show, “Real Sports.” Homophobia in men’s team sports had become one of the week’s big stories.

The publicity about Hatfield’s gaffe spread quickly across the varsity sports and academic grapevines. Chip Rogers coaches in the University of Virginia’s intramural sports program, and is an active member of Outsports’ popular discussion board. On Wednesday he shared an email that was circulating among collegiate Athletic Directors and staff, a heads-up on the situation at Rice. The message’s intent was not negative, but carried an urgent reminder. Another homophobic comment from any college coach or staff would seriously inflame the issue.

The Houston Chronicle noted Ken Hatfield’s claim that “we were painted in a certain corner (by reporter Jennifer Jacobson) — I’ve always gone by the Rice policy, and I’ll always do what’s best for our football team. Those are the basic principles I have to deal with in any situation, and the other situation she was talking about is purely hypothetical anyway.”

Rice’s student body engaged in lengthy and contentious debate through the weekend, with a deadline of Monday to agree on the language of the Student Association’s official statement. Reporter Chris Arasin has been covering the Hatfield/Loneliest Athlete incident for Houston’s KPFT-FM. “Supporters of the coach felt that ‘free speech’ should be allowed even when it differs from the stated Rice University policy,” Mr Arasin told Outsports. “Most of his supporters felt that the coach was ambushed by the reporter.” The pro-Hatfield contingent avoided the discussion of homophobia, but was deeply concerned about First Amendment to the U.S. Bill of Rights.

The Rice University Student Association Monday issued a resolution that calls on the university to “evaluate practices in the athletics department that may discriminate against homosexual athletes or foster an environment of intolerance”. Ken Hatfield’s statements, it says, “evidence and intensify an emotionally harmful environment of discrimination for students, especially athletes.”

In the larger world of collegiate athletics, homophobia was first discussed in a 1996 NCAA report, “Homophobia now out in the open”, which focused on anti-lesbian prejudice in college athletics. In it, UMass varsity swimming coach Pat Griffin talks about why gay male athletes aren’t an issue. “Of course there are gay men in athletics. Why aren’t we as upset or concerned about that? I think people can’t even imagine that the quarterback could be gay. It doesn’t fit. It’s such an oxymoron — gay quarterback…. Gay men who are interested in sport either get driven out or they are so completely and deeply closeted that they never would bring it up.”

Things may not have changed in men’s team sports in the intervening six years, but the NCAA has begun to take the matter very seriously. The Association’s newsletter in October of last year published a thorough backgrounder titled “H– The Scarlet Letter of Sports”. In 2002, the Association has held workshops and planning sessions at its annual convention, conferences and councils throughout the year. Its diversity seminars are in final revision to include sexual orientation along with race and gender, with pilot sessions planned for the annual NCAA convention in January, 2003.

At Rice University, Chris Arasin expects that “this will not be the end of discussion between Rice, the Student Association and the LGBT student group on campus, Rice PRIDE.” And, it seems likely, the NCAA.