The fight for greater inclusion in sports span decades and generations. A sizable number of pioneers still continue to lead, and raise their voices to break down the barriers that haven’t yet fallen.
Helen Carroll is one of those pioneers. For 40 years, she has been an heroic and legendary advocate as a coach, administrator and most recently as sports director for National Center for Lesbian Rights, or NCLR. She was a guest last week on the Outsports podcast The Trans Sporter Room, reflecting on what she’s done, filling us in on what’s she’s doing, and offering her view of current issues involving LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports.
In 15 years with the NCLR, Carroll’s initiatives played a major role in bringing LGBTQ+ equality to the playing field and into the consciousness of school administrations and governing bodies. Many of her legal battles, the most notable being the work surrounding NCLR’s 2005 lawsuit against Penn State and then-women’s basketball head coach Rene Portland, often involved helping someone whose truth has just come to light, in addition to the push against discrimination.
“We’ve had a lot of young people who have been discriminated against in universities, college and high schools who weren’t out to anyone until they told us what was going on,” Carroll said. “Not only did they have to be a part of the legal system, and very often were in the news, they had to come out and talk to their parents and the whole world. It involves taking a lot time with those young athletes especially and show them the strong person that they are.”
Carroll knows about the strength, and the struggle. Tennessee born-and-bred, she found a niche in basketball while trying to hide who she loved. She was a college player who became a college coach through early jobs at Tennessee-Martin and Wayne State (NE).
A change in scenery, taking the women’s basketball head coach position at UNC-Asheville in 1980, led to a change in her thinking, about being lesbian and being closeted.
“What I felt was extremely unhappy, so I made the decision that I was going to be who I was and show my players who I was and if that didn’t work, I would just do something else,” she declared. “Even though I didn’t use the words ‘I’m a coach and I’m a lesbian’, we all knew. I knew which players were, and the players knew about me. We were able to talk very frankly about relationships and what they mean to a team.”
“I made the personal decision to the try to be as honest as I can be with my players. To try to lead with integrity and have them able to trust me.”
In three seasons, Carroll turned trust and teamwork into results. Her 1983-84 squad won 32 games and an NAIA national championship. After that, she retired from coaching and moved into athletic administration. And in 1988, she became one of the first women to lead an athletic department by becoming athletic director at Mills College in San Francisco. Soon after accepting the position, she came out publicly.
Her experience at Mills set a template for her work at NCLR. In addition to a number of successful anti-discrimination lawsuits in the early 2000s, Carroll, alongside another legend, Prof. Pat Griffin, was among the working group that built the NCAA’s transgender student-athlete inclusion policy in 2011. The efforts of Carroll and Griffin were rewarded in 2012 when Outsports readers awarded them “Sports Persons of the Year” honors.
She had some choice words for the current backlash against trans student-athletes on the backdrop of efforts such as the passage of HB500 in Idaho and the U.S. Department of Education’s action against Franklin Pierce University.
“There are so many trans athletes playing and their teammates are great, their coaches are great. You hardly have a problem. Once in awhile, someone wins and it gets stirred up in a political way,” she exclaimed. “It’s just mean-spirited. It’s very mean-spirited and just shows a lack of integrity and caring.”
Carroll retired from her position with the NCLR in 2017, but she is working on the next step ahead. She seeks to be involved in building an inclusive structure in sports for non-binary athletes.
Listen to Helen Carroll talk about those subjects and more in a full conversation with me and my co-host Dawn Ennis on the Outsports podcast, The Trans Sporter Room by clicking here.