Props to ESPN The Magazine, for publishing an excellent profile on role of homophobia in recruiting for women’s college basketball. Here’s the first paragraph, which describes an example of the problem:
On every top recruit’s college visit, there comes the moment of the final pitch, when the head-spinning hoopla finally gives way to the business of basketball, when the high school girl steps away from the rah-rah of all the games and the ego-stroking of all the VIP intros to sit down with the head coach. During one teen’s big moment, a heart-to-heart with Iowa State’s Bill Fennelly, the decorated coach of 23 years sang an insistent refrain. “He kept drilling that ‘this would be a family,'” says the player, who asked not to be named. “‘You should come here,’ he said, ‘because we’re family-oriented.'”
The article goes on to unpack the references to family and reveal them for the veiled homophobia they contain. Though it presents quotes from defenders of the term — like Fennelly himself, who defends his right to sell what he thinks his program has to offer, and UConn’s Geno Auriemma — the input from coaches, players, and scholars presents a far more persuasive case that recruits and their families interpret the family rhetoric to be “cloaking” something else. Specifically, it is a suggestion that here, unlike other programs, you don’t have to worry about lesbians coaches and teammates. Backing this up, the Magazine presents the results of its own survey of current and recent players, 55% of whom said that sexual orientation was an “underlying topic of conversation” in recruiting talks.
The article also makes a persuasive case for why this is bad for the game. Unlike other forms of negative recruiting, like suggestions that an opponent coach is violating rules, or planning to leave the program — the lesbian variety is unique to the women’s game, and is operating as what Professor Heather Barber calls “subtle weapon against programs led by unmarried female coaches.” It is a major factor in the disproportionately low number of head coaching jobs held by women. Homophobia not only deters some women from going into coaching in the first place, the threat of a lesbian stigma also keeps women isolated and prevents them from forging mentor relationships and networks that are necessary for advancement in the coaching profession. It is even rumored to be the reason why the biggest powerhouse teams in the game, Tennessee (coached by an unmarried woman, Pat Summit) and Connecticut (coached by a married man, the aforementioned Auriemma) don’t play a head-t0-head game anymore (though the article did not present any evidence to substantiate the rumor, only that the rumor exists). More importantly, it is oppressive to student athletes, like Emily Nkosi (nee Niemann) who played for Baylor until she couldn’t stand the closet any more. She left Waco because in her words, “my internalized homophobia made me believe that if people found out I was gay, they would kill me.”
Ending on a hopeful note, the article echoes coaches and others calling for better education and enforcement of recruiting violations, and a campaign to raise the ethical bar from within the coaching profession. More optimistically, it suggests that the changing cultural attitudes about lesbians will eventually catch up to athletics and render the lesbian stigma meaningless there too. Veiled homophobic references will backfire when they are addressed to recruits who are looking for team atmosphere that is open and affirming of their or their teammates’ lesbian orientation.