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Gay college tennis captain came out by urging NCAA to crack down on slurs by players, fans

Graham Ball took action and suggested concrete remedies.



Graham Ball
Photo by William Shelleau

I never planned on coming out while playing Division I Tennis at Stetson University in Florida.

I was pragmatic in my approach insofar as our tennis team had a strong relationship, and I did not want to take the risk and jeopardize that bond. I became hyperaware of my circumstances, and internalized that I would one day be able to flourish as an unapologetically proud gay man.

I abandoned this thought in my senior year when I noticed a trend at collegiate athletic events where I participated. At times, spectators and players alike would target other athletes, people in the stands, or officials, with slurs or taunts, and in many scenarios, the comments were aimed to cast queer people in a bad light. When I was at the receiving end of such slurs, I would address the officials, who never took any action.

I started researching the NCAA’s existing resources on heckling, intimidation, and disparagement of character at collegiate athletic events. I was pleased — but not satisfied — to find that the NCAA has documents with recommendations for best practices for universities to manage the environments at collegiate athletic events. I felt some comfort with these recommendations, but in my capacity as a student-athlete, that the recommendations needed to have a stronger foundation and be made into rules.

I was very aware that if I wanted to address my concern, I would need a lot of help from the Stetson community in drafting such a letter. I started meeting with professors — and wanted to thank Melinda Hall, Susan Peppers-Bates, and Michele Randall — to draft a letter detailing my concern and how best to raise the relevant substantive issues.

I then regularly met with Stetson’s Athletic Representative, PJ Moses, and Stetson’s Athletic Director Jeff Altier, who helped provide me with invaluable information as to what the NCAA could legally act on.

In all instances, I found myself having to “come out”, and I am more than pleased to have received such positive emotional support. I truly felt empowered in each one of these meetings and conversations.

May 23, 2017
NCAA’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion
700 W. Washington Street, Box 6222
Indianapolis, Indiana

Dear Bernard Franklin and Dr. Amy Wilson,

I hope this correspondence finds you well. My name is Graham Ball; I am the Captain of the Men’s Tennis team in my senior year at Stetson University in Deland, Florida. I am writing to express concerns over National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) universities’ responses to incidents of heckling, intimidation, and/or disparagement of character at collegiate athletic events. I have been working closely with Stetson University’s Athletic Director, Athletic Administrators, and Title IX Office to help develop this letter. I stipulate heckling to be any form of harassment of character—based on sexual orientation or gender identity, race, ability, national origin, religious belief(s), and any other possible trait that has stigma attached to it— with impertinent questions, gibes, taunts, slurs, etc. I stipulate intimidation as any action with aims to fill one with fear, to make one feel timid, anxious, or to force into or deter from some action by inducing fear. I stipulate disparagement as something that derogates or casts in a bad light, such as a remark or censorious essay.

In my capacity as a student-athlete I have both experienced and witnessed heckling and/or intimidation of character at collegiate athletic events. In my cases, I often was the target of harmful comments aimed to induce fear or diminish character based on perceived sexual orientation. As a closeted gay student-athlete, these comments bear tremendous weight on my personal life, and I do not believe that they should have a place in any sport etiquette. My intentions in writing this correspondence are not to bring claims against parties responsible. My intentions are to make suggestions with regard to steps that the NCAA can adopt to further its interest in creating a safe space. I understand a central tenet of a safe space to be an area where everyone is free from any heckling, intimidation, and/or disparagement of character.

I appreciate the NCAA’s existing resources, research, statements of advocating for inclusion, and openness to encourage minorities to speak out against the systematic bias that exists in our country. I have familiarized myself with the NCAA LGBTQ Subcommittee Statement of Affirmation, the NCAA Inclusion Statement, as well as available documents such as the “Champions of Respect: Inclusion of LGBTQ Student Athletes and Staff in NCAA Programs”, “Mind Body and Sport”, “Campus Pride: 2012 LGBTQ National College Athlete Report” and the NCAA’s resources on Title IX issues. These resources have been extremely helpful in informing me of the barriers that minority student-athletes may experience. The progress made with regards to these issues in previous years is a step in the right direction, and these measures have ensured me that the NCAA will hear my voice in a meaningful way.

I would like to raise three substantive issues that I have noticed in my experience as a student-athlete. First, some sports (including Division I Men’s Tennis) have recently adopted a set of rules to penalize players for making comments regarding game play or athletic performance to benefit a specific player. I believe that this rule has been enforced adequately. However, I am concerned with the seeming lack of enforcement of rules by anyone with a position of authority with regards to heckling, intimidation, and disparagement of character. Title II §202 of The Civil Rights Act (1964), which all NCAA universities must uphold, forbids discrimination at any establishment or place. My concern therefore, is not with the policies themselves, but with providing universities the tools to be able to address instances in which these incidents occur.

Second, there needs to be required oversight in crowds when fans or players on the bench heckle other athletes, or people at the event. Again, in all instances where I targeted for my perceived sexual orientation, I brought the incident to the attention of the officials at the athletic event. But no action was taken in response to my testimony. The officials brushed off my concern by either stating that they needed to witness the comment or that they will pay more attention to the crowd. If this burden rests in the hands of the officials, more attention needs to be placed on this specific issue. However, I think the burden should not rest on the hands of the officials and would recommend that a representative or someone trained on how to deal with such incidents be at each athletic event to provide this necessary oversight.

Third, in my capacity, the officials have not enforced the restorative justice actions suggested in “Champions of Respect: Inclusion of LGBTQ Student Athletes and Staff in NCAA Programs” (57). Because these incidents occurred at multiple different institutions over the course of my three and a half years as a student-athlete, I believe the climate at collegiate athletic events to be inconsistent with the NCAA’s opposition of discrimination as outlined in the “NCAA LGBTQ Subcommittee Statement of Affirmation.” In my view, much more should be done to amend this problem.

In the NCAA’s “Best Practices Recommendations” under their “Champions of Respect: Inclusion of LGBTQ Student Athletes and Staff in NCAA Programs”, there are numerous places where statements and suggestions are made on how to deal with spectator behavior (including, but not limited to: 19, 21, and 24). However, these are only recommendations. I understand the NCAA cannot mandate environments over contests that they do not run or have control over: even so, more should be done to address these incidents. On page 57 of the same document, under “Responding to Anti-LGBT Language Guiding Principles” it states that when officials, administrators, coaches, or other authority figures witness an incident of derogatory or demeaning language or actions they shall enforce the restorative justice policy. The use of the word “witness” elicits a concern, that is, someone with authority must see the incident. I would first like to recommend that this section is amended to include “witness or are notified of derogatory or demeaning languages or actions” they shall enforce the restorative justice policy. Indeed, the use of adding the “or are notified of” clause is not meant to enforce the restorative justice policy in clear instances of insincere testimonies. Those in authority should be able to distinguish between sincere and insincere testimonies based on the context. In the case of a sincere testimony, the official or person in authority should notify an athletic representative of the university of the offender, so that the official can focus on overseeing the event.

I have included a list of recommendations I would encourage the NCAA adopt to further its interest in providing a safe space for all athletes (continued on the following page). The use of the term heckling and/or intimidation of character is to be understood as it is defined in the opening paragraph of this letter.

NCAA Recommendations for a No Tolerance Policy of Heckling and/or Intimidation of Character:

The NCAA should adopt these recommendations as the institution bears an ethical obligation to ensure a safe space at all collegiate athletic events. These ethical obligations should outweigh the legal concerns of over regulating free speech. The following recommendations are intended to align with the NCAA’s opposition of all forms of discrimination as stated in their Statement of Affirmation.

Preventative Measures:

- Mandate the presence of either an Athletic Administrator, and/or other members of the hosting team’s athletic department, and/or someone from the university who is trained, or someone in the community who is trained around this issue to increase oversight at collegiate athletic events;

- Mandate that all athletic facilities have signage that states the NCAA’s and the university’s commitment to opposing all forms of heckling and/or intimidation of character;

- Mandate that all tickets sold for admittance at collegiate athletic events state the NCAA’s and the university’s commitment to opposing all forms of heckling and/or intimidation of character;

- Mandate that all hosting teams who wish to partake in collegiate athletic events in the NCAA verbally inform the audience and the athletes partaking in the event prior to all collegiate athletic events that intimidation or heckling of character will not be tolerated and that consequences will follow;

- Mandate that all officials overseeing the collegiate athletic event inform student athletes that all intimidation or heckling of character will not be tolerated and that should this happen, immediate action will be taken that would seem appropriate in its context (Stetson University enforces this policy at all athletic events);

- Mandate that all student-athletes are properly educated on the impacts (on other student athletes and themselves) of intimidation and heckling of character by including this subject at mandatory attendance compliance meetings.

Immediate Action:

- The Athletic Administrator or officials who oversee the collegiate athletic event should have the parties responsible removed from the event. In moderate to severe instances, the athletic department should determine whether the parties responsible would have the right to return to future athletic events;

- Should a party held responsible be associated—other than merely a fan—with an athletic team competing at the event, then the athletic team associated with the responsible party be punished in an appropriate way by the officials;

- Parties held responsible for intimidation or heckling of character should have to follow the same educational prescriptions in the NCAA’s restorative justice policy.

In closing remarks, I would like to re-iterate my concerns that the NCAA should adopt these recommendations to further its interest in providing a safe space for everyone at collegiate athletic events. I appreciate the existing resources on the NCAA website, and value its commitment to oppose all forms of discrimination. I relish my role as the Captain of the Men’s Tennis Team at Stetson University, and I am both privileged and humbled to be a Division I NCAA student-athlete.

I look forward to working with the NCAA and playing a role in the conversation on taking steps to foster a safe space environment at all collegiate athletic events. Every student-athlete, indeed every person, should feel that social identity and sport are consistent with each other.

Sincerely,
Graham Ball
Captain of the Men’s Tennis Team, Stetson University
gball@stetson.edu
(386) 785-7358

Sincerely,
Graham Ball
Captain of the Men’s Tennis Team, Stetson University

Graham Ball graduated from Stetson University in Florida in May 2017 in Philosophy. He is currently on a gap year and is planning on enrolling in law school in the fall of 2018. He has been volunteering regularly for the West Island LGBTQ2+ Youth Centers, teaching adaptive tennis for ProSet Autism, and has spent time working for the Instagram account : @lgbt_history. Graham can be reached via email (gball@stetson.edu) or on Instagram (@gballl)