Silence is not golden

In the past six months, the conversation about the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi has ebbed and flowed as athletes, journalists and sports executives have expressed concern about Russia's anti-gay laws while also urging restraint amid the specter of protest at the Games.

But we haven't yet harnessed the full power of the moment -- and the potential for change that comes with it -- because too many voices remain silent. And the reason they are silent is because too many people fail to recognize the fears and pressures weighing on a large segment of the sports community: gay female athletes and their would-be allies.

Caitlin Cahow, a former defenseman for the U.S. Olympic women's ice hockey team, addressed some of these issues in a recent interview with the website Outsports. "My prediction is that as we move closer to Sochi, you may see more male athletes coming out and saying, 'We don't agree with this, Russia, but we're going to show up and we're going to compete,' " she said. "I think it's going to be pretty silent on the women's side."

Cahow is acknowledging what people within women's sports know all too well: that "don't ask, don't tell" is still the unofficial motto. While LGBT-friendly organizations such as Athlete Ally and You Can Play have made strides within men's sports -- specifically, working with straight male athletes to raise awareness of the challenges faced by their closeted teammates -- most members of the women's sports community continue to keep their heads down. Nothing to see here, people. Move along.

The exception that proves the rule: this groundbreaking video from the top-ranked University of Connecticut women's basketball team, released at the end of October. In it, four key players -- Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Brianna Banks -- speak out against discrimination based on sexuality or gender expression, making it clear the Huskies won't stand for it.

"Bullying and anti-gay comments and slurs have no place here," Mosqueda-Lewis says on camera. Adds Dolson: "No matter what your sexual orientation or gender identity is, you're always welcome on our court."

The video was made in collaboration with Br{ache the Silence, an organization working to promote inclusion within women's sports.

That goal -- trying to end anti-gay bigotry -- might lead to some head-scratching among fans, considering that WNBA star Brittney Griner and soccer star Abby Wambach both publicly acknowledged their sexuality this year. Isn't the women's sports world inclusive already?

No, actually. It's not.

And therein lies the problem. If awareness is the precursor to progress, then groups like Br{ache the Silence have some big hurdles to clear.

The common perception is it's easier for gay female athletes and coaches to come out than it is for their male counterparts. So pervasive is this view that sometimes the people expressing it are gay, as if it's a verifiable fact -- as if coming out is no big deal for lesbian athletes. There are two major assumptions at play here: 1) in women's sports, you are gay until proven otherwise; and 2) because so many women in sports are gay, the environment around them must be welcoming and supportive.

After Griner acknowledged she is gay, the New York Times ran this headline: "Female Star Comes Out as Gay, and Sports World Shrugs." The Times story also included this quote from You Can Play founder Patrick Burke: "In sports right now, there are two different stereotypes -- that there are no gay male athletes, and every female athlete is a lesbian. We've had tremendous success in getting straight male players to speak to the issue; we're having a tougher time finding straight female athletes speaking on this issue because they've spent their entire careers fighting the perception that they're a lesbian."

Few female athletes and coaches, gay or straight, would describe the sports world as open and inclusive. And while there are many complicated reasons for this dichotomy in perception and reality (e.g., sexism, age discrimination, internalized homophobia), the simple fact remains that the power brokers within women's sports -- college athletic directors and team owners -- are still primarily straight, middle-aged white men. This lack of diversity hampers dialogue, no matter how well-meaning some of those men are. Many female coaches, both at the collegiate and professional levels, still believe that staying in the closet is the only way to keep their jobs.

What makes the UConn video unexpected, and encouraging, is it comes from the premier program in women's college basketball, a sport that has long struggled with homophobia. Much of the fear and closeting that exists within women's sports is at the Division I college level, where athletic directors -- 87.5 percent of whom are white men -- set the culture and expectations, and female coaches still worry about their perceived sexuality when walking into a recruit's home.

Nevin Caple, who played women's college basketball at Fairleigh Dickinson, is the co-founder and executive director of Br{ache the Silence, the non-profit organization that kicked off its "All In" campaign with this video featuring Indiana Fever guard Layshia Clarendon and coach Lin Dunn. When asked by espnW if her group will focus on Sochi, Caple said, "I believe in the importance of having representation in Sochi. But with only one publicly out lesbian coach in Division I women's basketball, I'd say there's still a lot of work to be done here."

Caple is referring to Portland State coach Sherri Murrell, who came out publicly in 2007. Some people within the women's college game believed, and hoped, others would follow in Murrell's footsteps. But that didn't happen.

So, if only a small number of lesbian athletes and just one head coach in the premier women's college sport are publicly out, how could anyone consider women's sports to be an open and inclusive environment? And what pressures are keeping everyone else in the closet?

Let's lean on Cahow again, who echoes Burke as she offers a glimpse into life within this arena. "There is a 'guilt by association' philosophy with female athletes," Cahow told Outsports. "You don't want to be perceived as being a lesbian. And if you are a lesbian, you don't want to fit into the stereotype [that female athletes are gay]. You don't want to gratify that stereotype with a response. That's something unique to women's sports."

Many voices have offered opinions on how U.S. athletes should conduct themselves in Russia, how they might call attention to what is seen as an overseas assault on human rights. Curiously, very few athletes, organizations or media members have turned their spotlights on the often stifling climate within women's sports in the United States, where a great number of LGBT people work in silence.

This is not an either-or situation. We should talk about Russia. But we should also talk about issues that persist closer to home. If anything, the controversy surrounding the Olympics offers the perfect platform to do both.

As the Sochi Games draw near, fans and media will pay close attention to how many U.S. athletes step forward to speak out about, or against, the policies in Russia.

But the question remains: How many of those athletes will be women?