The number of publicly out LGBT coaches in women’s college basketball has exploded over the last few years. In this year’s Elite Eight, almost half the teams had an out coach.
It hasn’t always been this way. Despite a fast-growing number of women coaching college basketball comfortable with being out, for many years fear of repercussions kept female (and male) coaches in the closet.
Negative recruiting, for example, has been a powerful weapon used against some women in college sports. Coaches who engage in negative recruiting tell recruits that a rival coach is a lesbian, using that to dissuade players from going to a rival school.
The fear of having their sexual orientation used as a weapon against them in recruiting has kept many coaches in the closet for a long time.
Believe it or not, a decade ago there was only one Division I women’s college basketball coach who was publicly out: Sherri Murrell, then the head women’s basketball coach at Portland State. When she left the program in 2015, that left a void until University of San Francisco coach Jennifer Azzi came out in 2106. Yet she left the program shortly after that.
Murrell said coaching in Portland — “there’s a lesbian on every corner” — certainly created a more-welcoming environment when she came out, including a photograph of her then-wife and kids in the team’s media guide.
Yet even in Portland in the 2010s, she at times felt the sting of prejudice.
“There’s still the undercurrent of a homophobic environment in sports, and that doesn’t just change overnight,” she said.
Still, that environment has improved. Now with dozens of out men and women coaching college basketball — from powerhouses like Stanford to smaller schools like Brandeis — there has come a tipping point where the presence of out LGBT people in the sport has changed the equation.
Decades-long perspective of shifting attitudes
When Helen Carroll lead the UNC-Asheville women’s basketball team to an NAIA national title in 1984, she was out to people in and around the team and in her personal life, but back then no one was writing about LGBT athletes or coaches.
Over the last 40 years, Carroll has gotten insights into every corner of college sports as the athletic director at Division III Mills College and then the Sports Project Director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
The environment of women’s sports today — with so many out women — is exciting for her to see.
“We can look at this and see couples with children coaching, and their institutions celebrating them and being proud of them,” she said. “It gives me chills.”
Given her decades of hard work and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with people who may not see the need for LGBT inclusion in sports, her perspective holds a lot of weight. Through all of the social changed she’s witnessed, she points to one key element that has created this blossoming of out coaches.
“Marriage became legal and very visible around the United States. And as these younger coaches were growing up they’ve been able to see that it’s OK. And today if you’re married with kids, you are essentially out.”
That fact is how Outsports has identified many of the out coaches — 57 total across the two sex categories — we have discovered. By typing “her wife” and some college basketball terms into Google, the official school public profiles of many out coaches come into view.
A renowned expert on the issues facing LGBT people in sport, Carroll knows the increasing number of out coaches isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.
“It’s not going to go backward,” she said. “It’s only going to be more and more available to coaches, being able to coach without worry hanging over their head, that they maybe outed.”
Being one of one
Murrell agrees, as she’s seen slow progress that has recently accelerated with women coming out across sports. At the 2021 Summer Olympics, of the 186 publicly out athletes Outsports counted, 170 were women.
She knows it’s taken a while to get here.
Part of having so many publicly out coaches is that the number of LGBT women in professional and high-level college sports is very high. For example, at least 20% of the players currently in the WNBA are publicly out, and that doesn’t include the players who aren’t yet out. No one would claim that anywhere near 20% of current NBA players are LGBT.
Still, Murrell knows progress in the men’s game is happening.
“Once we have a male coach who becomes ‘the one,’ it may be a while before there is a second one,” she said. “It’s a marathon not a sprint.”
There has been one assistant coach in men’s Division I college basketball — Bryant’s Chris Burns — who came out publicly as gay. Matt Lynch is currently a head coach of a community college men’s basketball team in South Carolina. There’s never been a publicly out gay head coach of a men’s NCAA basketball team.
Out men in the women’s game
While there have been very few out men in the men’s game, several are out in women’s college basketball. Curt Miller is a successful WNBA head coach — currently with the Los Angeles Sparks — who previously coached at Indiana where he introduced his family at his introductory press conference.
Jason Jaramillo is an assistant coach at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., after a multi-year stint at fellow Division III program Sarah Lawrence.
Jaramillo said that seeing Miller find such success gave him the courage to enter the game.
“When I was a high school coach and not out, knowing that there was an out gay man at the highest level was a beacon for me,” Jaramillo said. “And then over the years, getting to know him and being able to talk basketball, and learn from him, has been powerful.”
While there may be some religious institutions that make it hard to come out while on staff, Jaramillo said overall he sees a full-speed-ahead approach to LGBT inclusion amongst the women’s coaching ranks.
“I’ve had a phenomenal experience,” he said. In addition to the two D3 schools, he’s also coached at Santa Ana Community College in Southern California. “I’ve been accepted at all three schools I’ve worked at. So much so that my colleagues ask me about my husband.”
Jaramillo will host an LGBT meet-and-greet — endorsed by the Sports Equality Foundation — at the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association conference in Dallas this Saturday, April 1, at 10:30am.