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Is the Tide Turning? Fighting Homophobia in Women’s Basketball

April 20, 2007, 12:36 am

The news from colleges and universities has been so troubling lately, let’s look aggressively for something positive and uplifiting to write about. In fact, let’s revisit homophobia in women’s college hoops.

As D-I women’s basketball programs move into the last stages of the recruiting season, catch this speculation that fallout from the Pokey Chatman scandal might have some benefits, in that people are no longer pretending that there are not lesbians in women’s basketball. New York Times reporter Jere Longman had a great piece in the sports section today about how the tables might be turning — in favor of lesbians being out and being respected for what they do well. The forced resignation of Penn State’s Renee Portland, the coach who vowed no lesbian would ever play on her team and who harassed players she suspected were not straight, may be a sign of positive change, as is the way young people are telling their parents to mind their own beeswax on this issue (at least one highly recruited Philadelphia female athlete is quoted as saying lesbians on the team are no big deal.) But the willingness of leading coaches to speak out against bigotry and manipulation of the young is the most refreshing feature of Longman’s article.

No one is yet saying that it is OK to have a lesbian coach, but some coaches are saying that it is wrong — and bad recruiting — to create a homophobic environment or use the homophobia of parents to pressure young women. And who was the go-to guy on this issue? UConn’s own Geno Auriemma.

Those of us who live and work in Connecticut are mostly diehard UConn Husky women’s basketball fans; after all, we have no other teams in Connecticut, and are forced to do this schizophrenic New York-Boston thing for all other sports. And we love Geno, who has not only brought us five national titles but has a personality as big as a house. And I get it he’s a man, and not so vulnerable to being lesbian-baited but you could argue that he is vulnerable to being man-baited, and that perhaps this has affected his sexual politics. Anyway, Geno took the opportunity to be quoted in the Longman article that homophobia is not a beneficial recruiting strategy, and in doing so, implied that lesbians on his team can be assured of his respect. Yes, he said, homophobia can be used to sow the seeds of doubt in a young player’s mind about committing to a coach rumoured to be a lesbian and/or a team where the women can be frank about their sexuality. But, as Longman characterized Auriemma’s attitude on this subject, “negative recruiting carries the risk of backfiring.”

“‘What if the kid you’re recruiting is gay and you don’t know it?’” Auriemma said. ‘You bring the topic up and the kid says, “I’m not playing for this guy; this guy’s got problems.”’ He added, ‘Coaches who do care about that stuff lose.’”

And Gail Goestenkors, recently head coach at Duke and the new head coach at Texas, told Longman that “The issue of sexual orientation sometimes is raised by parents during recruiting visits….Goestenkors said that the mother of Kelley Cain, a 6-foot-5 center from Atlanta who has since committed to Tennessee, asked her, ‘If there are homosexuals on your team, what is your policy?’ Goestenkors said she replied, ‘I treat everyone the same.’”

It’s nice to see successful coaches breaking ranks with the hostile silence on this issue, making the point that desirable recruits can also be lesbians, and that letting an athlete go rather than compromising the quality of life for the team is part of being a smart recruiter. And even a champion.

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