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Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Who should ask? Who should tell?

By Mechelle Voepel

In the 1990s, another reporter called me seeking feedback on a women's basketball coaching search. He thought he had figured out the best candidate: a longtime assistant at a successful program who had roots in the same area as the school he was covering.

The reporter was sure this assistant must be at the top of the list, right? When I hesitated, he asked, "Don't you think she's a good coach?" I hastened to say that she was. It was just that … well …

I hemmed and hawed a bit. The reason I didn't think she was a serious candidate? Because I presumed she and the head coach she worked with were a lesbian couple, and that neither one of them was going anywhere.

I say "presumed" because they had never publicly identified themselves as such. But reporters make certain presumptions when they cover any sport. Not because we want to pry into people's private lives. It's mostly just about observing. (Although, yes, there's also gossip.)

I didn't want to mislead my colleague, but I also didn't want to potentially "out" the coaches. Ultimately, he got my drift and said, "OK, thanks. Now I won't write that she's the top choice. I'll just say she's a possibility."

There seemed to be an unspoken code: Sports writers not only shouldn't "out" athletes or coaches but should essentially avoid questions about their personal lives if we thought they might be gay.

This exchange reflected what I've long thought of as the sports-journalism version of "don't ask, don't tell."

This wasn't discussed when I was in journalism school in the 1980s, or even brought up much by editors throughout my career. Nonetheless, there seemed to be an unspoken code: Sports writers not only shouldn't "out" athletes or coaches but should essentially avoid questions about their personal lives if we thought they might be gay.

If they chose to bring up the topic, that was OK. Otherwise, we usually didn't ask. And they rarely told.

I'm certainly not suggesting all media have adhered to this "code." But I have. And many of the reporters I've known seem to, as well. Or at the very least, are typically hesitant to broach the topic of whether someone is gay, even in circumstances when writing about their relationship could be deemed journalistically relevant.

After Baylor's Brittney Griner talked openly about being gay recently, I thought a lot about the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" mindset in sports writing. And I've pondered it more since NBA free agent Jason Collins' announcement this week.

I've covered many sports, men's and women's, but have spent the most time covering women's basketball. I'm old enough to remember the Pam Parsons saga at South Carolina in the early 1980s, and the initial controversy with Rene Portland at Penn State in the early 1990s.

By the mid-'90s, I was working for ESPN.com and, over the years, have written about the lawsuit filed by Jennifer Harris against Portland and Penn State, the coming out of Sheryl Swoopes, and the bizarre and murky forced resignation of Pokey Chatman at LSU. I've also written about the fact that Swoopes' agent approached me a couple of years ago to say Sheryl was, as she put it, "in a different situation, now." Meaning she was no longer in a same-sex relationship.

Through it all, there were coaches I assumed were lesbians and I thought likely had very strong, valid, well-formed opinions about all these topics: such as homophobia, how you deal with relationships on teams, even the fluidity of sexuality. But for the most part, they never spoke up. And, frequently, I didn't ask.

Two years ago, I participated in a Web chat titled "The Rainbow Ceiling" that was organized by the Association for Women in Sports Media. Also on the chat were LGBT educator and activist Pat Griffin, Olympic softball player Lauren Lappin, former Belmont soccer coach Lisa Howe (who has lost her job after coming out to the school's administration) and Portland State women's basketball coach Sherri Murrell.

The title was related to the term "glass ceiling," so named for what many women still run into as they try to advance in their field of choice. The rainbow ceiling stands for similar barriers that gay people face, and all of us on the panel were out. But we understood it was still a scary topic for many.

I said then, in regard to my experiences in covering women's sports and broaching the topic of homosexuality: "You start to get into a dialogue with somebody, you see the fear, you can see the walls go up, and you usually don't continue it. The word 'lesbian' itself makes alarm bells go off."

But I also pointed out that I thought it was different between generations. Younger players seemed much less fearful about the subject than older players or coaches. In the coaching profession, it was still almost a taboo topic.

Griffin, who has done extensive research and writing about homophobia in athletics, also addressed that fear, especially among coaches.

"Once you internalize that terror of being identified as a lesbian for the older generation, I think it's very difficult to overcome it," she said. "You shouldn't underestimate how disabling that terror can be, unfortunately."

Has it gotten better even in the two years since that AWSM discussion? I think so. If nothing else, it's heartening to hear the support Griner got from her peers. It was actually like, "Well, of course we accept her as she is. How would anything else be even fair or decent?" Collins' coming out, which breaks a different kind of ground as he is an active player in a major men's U.S. sports league, has also brought a great deal of positive acceptance.

But at the time of the AWSM discussion, Murrell was the only publicly "out" Division I women's hoops coach. As far as I know, she still is. There are others who have never said anything publicly but live their lives fairly openly. I've long referred to that as "in the closet, but with the door open."

So, is the atmosphere among women's college coaches significantly different than it ever had been?

Will college coaches who are in same-sex relationships include their partners in any public way? Will coaches continue to be listed as essentially "single, with pets" in media guides? And what about their straight peers? Will they be any more openly supportive of gay coaches and players?

There will be those who ask, "Why does any of this matter?" My answer is simple: Because as long as people still believe they must hide something that should be a matter-of-fact part of their lives, there is still a stigma attached to it.

In recent years, a type of glasnost seems to be developing in regard to sports-media coverage of homosexuality.

Does it cover the wide spectrum of experience among gay athletes and coaches? Does it make up for decades of silence, occasionally broken by coverage that often felt tawdry and scandalous? Has it resulted in all kinds of athletes and coaches coming out?

No, no and no. But it's ground that continues to be broken. Yes, there will be resistance from those who believe it's a religious issue and therefore feel they must speak out against homosexuality, and from those who just disdain coverage of the topic. But the metaphor of the opened closet door is apt for all of sports in the United States.

How much of it is our job in the media to be part of who walks out? I ultimately think that's up to individual media professionals. So much of what we report -- with any depth -- depends on developing trust with athletes and coaches. For a long time, I know a part of that trust for those of us who cover women's sports was not hurting sources by potentially outing them -- or one of their teammates, coaches or athletes.

All of this is evolving generationally with athletes and coaches, but I think it has to evolve with the media, too. It doesn't mean we should start aggressively crossing boundaries or pushing people to uncomfortable places.

But maybe we have come to a point where we don't have to keep thinking "not asking" is the most respectful way to proceed.