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No Lesbians Allowed on The Team: Déjà Vu All Over Again

The allegations by two Pepperdine athletes that their coach engaged in systematic anti-gay discrimination harkens back to the hate-filled reign of Rene Portland at Penn State.

Haley Videckis played for Arizona State before transferring to Pepperdine.
Haley Videckis played for Arizona State before transferring to Pepperdine.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's note: Out lesbian basketball players Haley Videckis and Layana White have sued Pepperdine University and their head coach alleging anti-LGBT bias. You can sign a petition by Br{ache The Silence calling for LGBT-inclusion training at Pepperdine.

The news that two lesbian basketball players at Pepperdine University have filed a discrimination lawsuit against the school and their coach evoke unpleasant memories of the 2005 lawsuit against Penn State and women's basketball coach, Rene Portland. In both cases, almost 10 years apart, the lawsuits charge that a coach conducted a witch hunt to identify lesbian team members and either dismisses them from the team at Penn State or to bully and harass them off the team in the case of Pepperdine.

Coach Ryan Weisenberg, the second year head women's basketball coach at Pepperdine, is accused of conducting a sustained campaign of discrimination against two players, Layana White and Haley Videckis, who he suspected were lesbians and involved in a relationship with each other. According to the lawsuit Weisenberg made it clear to his team that lesbians were not welcome and that he believed the presence of lesbians on the team would have a detrimental effect on the team's performance. The lawsuit alleges that Weisenberg's campaign included harassment of Layana and Haley by academic counselors, athletic trainers and assistant coaches. The complaint also alleges that he prevented both athletes from playing by failing to process eligibility waivers for Layana who was a transfer student and holding up paperwork clearing Haley to play after she incurred a non-sport injury.

In addition, the lawsuit claims that the coach and his staff violated the athletes' right to privacy by repeatedly interrogating them about their private life, sexual orientation, dating partners and even demanding to see the results of gynecological exams (yes, their private non-sport performance related medical records) as a prerequisite to returning to competition. According to the lawsuit, the coach and one of the academic advisors also questioned other team members about the relationship between Haley and Layana. The harassment became so severe that Layana attempted suicide in September.

Both women have left Pepperdine with their basketball and academic dreams crushed.  If even some of the allegations against the coach and his staff are true, Layana and Haley have been subjected to abusive and hostile treatment by the very people who are supposed to support and guide them as collegiate student-athletes.  This is not consistent with any Christian principles that I am aware of.

Pepperdine is a private Christian school affiliated with the Church of Christ.  Pepperdine, like Baylor and many other Christian schools, has a code of conduct that forbids all students from having premarital sex and specifically includes sex between same-sex students as grounds for dismissal from the university. The hypocrisy of these Christian codes of conduct lies in the disparity of treatment of heterosexual and LGBT students. The code of conduct has a disparate effect on students based on their sexual orientation.

Coach Weisenberg and his staff did not grill heterosexual team members about their dating relationships or whether or not they were having sex with their boyfriends. Heterosexual students do not feel the need to hide their sexual orientation or lie about their dating relationships in order to keep their place on a team or standing as a student at the university. This burden is placed only on the shoulders of LGBT athletes.

The hypocrisy of these Christian codes of conduct lies in the disparity of treatment of heterosexual and LGBT students. The code of conduct has a disparate effect on students based on their sexual orientation.

Coaches and schools, regardless of their religious affiliation, have a responsibility to treat the students they admit to their schools and athletic programs with respect.  The bullying and harassment alleged in the Pepperdine lawsuit represent an outrageous abuse of power by coaches and athletic staff no matter the sexual orientation of the athletes who are targeted by it, the religious affiliation of the coaches and athletic staff who perpetrated it or whether the school is a private religious or public secular institution.

The greatest tragedy of the allegations made in the Pepperdine lawsuit is the emotional and psychological toll that they take on two young women who are standing up for their rights to be treated with fairness and dignity. They just wanted to play basketball and now that goal is in doubt. If the allegations in the lawsuit prove to be true, the coach and his staff do not belong in any role working with young people and the University that is enabling this behavior should be held accountable for supporting a coach who is a bully.

The irony is that none of the accusations in the lawsuit allege that the coach believed that Layana and Haley or their relationship with each other had done anything to disrupt the team. In fact their teammates tried to protect them and warn them about the coach's campaign against them. It was his own prejudices about lesbians and his determination to root out lesbians on his team based on those prejudices that will now overshadow the team, its performance and Pepperdine University's reputation.

The Pepperdine lawsuit highlights a problem in athletics at private religious schools that must be addressed.  Even if approval is not forthcoming, how do we create a climate of respect for LGBT students in private religious schools that do not condone homosexuality, bisexuality or transgenderism? Is it possible to find some common ground where these students can pursue their academic and athletic goals without fear and isolation? What responsibilities do these schools have to the LGBT students whom they admit to the university and accept as part of sports teams, but then condemn to a college experience of silence and fear to avoid the kinds of abuse described in the Pepperdine lawsuit?

All people who claim to be educators or coaches owe it to our students to figure this out before more young people's lives are scarred and athletic dreams lost in the name of religion.

Enough is enough.

Pat Griffin is a legend in the LGBT sports movement, having been an athlete and educator for many years. Check out Pat Griffin's blog, It Takes A Team.