Unhealthy climate

Some women's college basketball coaches use a subtle vocabulary to dis certain programs. Jorg Klaus/ESPN The Magazine

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Feb. 7, 2011, issue. Subscribe today!

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.'"

To the recruit, those seemingly comforting words cloaked a deeper meaning. Two of the four schools she was considering were purported to employ lesbians on their staffs. Her stop in Ames, in fact, was on the heels of a trip to one of those allegedly "gay programs." There, coaches avoided discussing anyone's off-court lives. Iowa State, in contrast, pushed the personal hard. "They threw it out constantly," says the player, who became a Cyclone. "'Iowa has morals, and people who live here have values, wholesome values.'" The implication, to her and to another former Cyclone who confirmed her account, was that at other schools, "there's something going on you don't know."

The messaging continued after she joined the Iowa State squad and started to help recruit younger players. Coaches told all the Cyclones to emphasize their "environment" to any visiting recruits: married head coach, straight assistants, kids running underfoot. "Tell them we're family- oriented," the player recalls. "According to the coaches, it needed to be said."

Why, exactly, depends on whom you ask. Gay rights activists, coaches and players speak at length about what they see as a longtime and underhanded recruiting tactic in women's sports: Pitches emphasizing a program's family environment and implicit heterosexuality are often part of a consciously negative campaign targeted at another program's perceived sexual slant. In a survey of more than 50 current and former college players, as part of The Magazine's seven-month look at women's basketball recruiting, 55 percent answered "true" when asked if sexual orientation is an underlying topic of conversation with college recruiters.

Heather Barber, a sports psychology professor at the University of New Hampshire who has studied this topic extensively, says "family focused" recruiting is used as a subtle weapon against programs led by unmarried female coaches: "When coaches say things like, 'We're a family,' one aspect of that is 'We support each other,' and that's good. But it crosses the line when programs talk about 'family values,' then put a definition on what families look like. That becomes code for 'We reflect a straight program.'"

Fennelly, on the other hand, says he pushes Iowa State's familial spirit because that's what he has to sell. It's all positive, and anyone who thinks otherwise is distorting what he and his school stand for. "I think what's happening," he says, "is, in an odd way, my staff is being penalized because they're married and have families." The coach, one of the few in the women's game willing to speak on the record about the subject, denies that he or any of his staff has ever used the term "wholesome" to recruit a player. But, Fennelly adds, "if using the word 'family' is viewed as negative recruiting, then we're guilty, because we say that. I don't think it's negative. Maybe I'm the only one in America who thinks that's ridiculous to say."

He isn't, of course. Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma says that if people are agitating to "tone down" the focus on family when it comes to recruiting, "everyone in this business ought to shoot themselves in the head." He adds, "If that's the direction people want to take it, they've lost their grip on reality."

But others argue that homophobic recruiting is more than a disagreement over language. Long an issue, the practice -- and the suspicion of it -- has without question created a toxic atmosphere in the highest-profile women's college sport.

Negative recruiting is even whispered in answer to the game's toughest riddle: Why don't the sport's two top programs, Tennessee and UConn, play each other anymore?

Auriemma says he still doesn't know why Pat Summitt, Tennessee's legendary coach, nixed their annual showdown in 2007. But he's heard the rumor that has circulated since: UConn used antigay recruiting tactics against the Lady Vol program. "If someone is saying that's the reason," Auriemma says, "they're more out of their minds than I think they are." Summitt declined to be interviewed for this story.

To be sure, negative recruiting plagues men's sports, too -- this school is headed for probation, that campus is unfriendly to African-Americans, that coach will bail with the next decent job offer -- but homophobic pitches are unique to women's games. They are an open secret in college hoops, almost as open as the fact that there are lesbians who play and coach. But few want to talk about the issue on the record, and trying to define what constitutes antigay recruiting, let alone identifying victims and culprits, devolves into an exercise in avoidance, denial and fear. "It's a paradoxical notion," says Beth Bass, CEO of the Women's Basketball Coaches Association. "Although women's athletics can break down barriers, be it racism or sexism, sometimes we're the last place ignorance can still exist. Sometimes, we're the slowest on these underbelly issues." So as acceptance of gay rights continues to grow in American society at large, recruiting against sexual orientation not only continues to take place, but it also pressures many players, regardless of identity, to shun "gay programs" and drives gay women out of coaching.

Kathy Marpe, who coached at the University of San Diego from 1980 to 2005 while closeting her homosexuality throughout, is certain that more than one recruit was steered away from her program by accusation and innuendo. As a rule, recruits are deterred by subtle code phrases: A school's climate is "unhealthy" or "not family friendly." But Marpe recalls one case in particular in which the negative pitch was far more blunt. "A kid's high school coach told me that another college coach said, 'You know, they're gay.' The player ended up not coming."

There are no data showing how many recruits are swayed by these negative characterizations. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence, enough to have spurred the NCAA to co-sponsor a 2006 think tank on the subject with the National Center for Lesbian Rights. The NCLR and the Women's Sports Foundation released a paper in 2009, written by Helen Carroll and Pat Griffin, on how to recognize and erase the practice of antigay recruiting. In the end, though, this is a crime without a body. "Negative recruiting creates a hostile environment for all coaches regardless of their sexual orientation," the paper states, "but because they are not in a position to deny the allegations, the largest
impact is on lesbian, gay and bisexual coaches." To cope, the paper concludes, lesbian and bisexual coaches are forced to hide their identities or details of their personal lives.

Even that strategy may not be able to outflank a rumor mentioned discreetly by an opposing coach or booster to a recruit. And that is both a competitive and job-security issue, because one player can be the difference between March Madness and an April pink slip. "Coaches aren't worried about getting fired for being lesbian," says Barber, the sports psych professor, "but they do worry about being fired for not being able to recruit successfully because of it."

THERE WAS A TIME before this friction was the norm. Until women's basketball began to
blossom into the major college sport it is today, few knew or cared about the sexual tenor of the game. Few knew there even was a game. In the 1960s and '70s, the sport's powerhouses were mostly small, since forgotten, schools. In 1972, for example, the final game of the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women tournament featured Immaculata and West Chester State. But if it was a minor league world, it was also a woman's world. Back then, more than 90 percent of the teams were coached by women. By 1992, that number had fallen to 72 percent. By 2008, it was down to 64 percent.

Oddly, what forced the turnover was Title IX and lots of money. Title IX, the law that bound any educational institution receiving federal funds to offer equal athletic opportunities for women, pushed big-conference schools to add programs and scholarship money. Then the NCAA lured women's teams away from the AIAW and turned on the cash faucet. Suddenly, a women's hoops coach who could fill an arena and take a team deep into the NCAA Tourney could increase an athletic department's visibility, which meant those jobs gained prestige and started to pay more. Not surprisingly, male coaches noticed and moved in.

But homophobia also greased the declining percentage of female coaches. More than a few coaches, male and female, realized that when they talked to parents, they could highlight the fact that they weren't lesbians -- and therefore couldn't "corrupt" their daughters. Fears of "converting" straight girls into lesbians have long bedeviled women's sports. The high-profile case of Pam Parsons, who in 1982 resigned as coach of South Carolina amid accusations that she had a sexual relationship with a player, made those fears public. And it has had the lingering effect of forcing gay coaches and players deeper into the closet. "Because it was a woman and because of the times," says Carroll, who heads the NCLR's sports project, "the fear became of a 'lesbian coaching my daughter.'"

Those fears continue to taint recruiting, from all sides. Emily Nkosi, who as Emily Niemann hit five three-pointers for Baylor in its 2005 title win against Michigan State, remembers that when recruiters came to her Houston home, as they did by the dozens in 2002, they had to pass a test. "On home visits," Nkosi says, "my dad was assigned the question: 'Do you have a bunch of lesbians on your team?'" Nkosi says her youth coaches abetted the process, vetting programs with their own inquiries about a "healthy climate" and the like. "You know," Nkosi says, "the code words."

This line of questioning was especially fraught for Nkosi because, deep down, she knew she was a lesbian. But she was also a fundamentalist Christian who feared the religious repercussions of that reality. When Baylor coach Kim Mulkey made her visit to the Niemanns', she skillfully evaded the family question. (Baylor did not respond to The Mag's interview request.)

According to Nkosi, Mulkey said she had no idea what her players did away from the gym, only that inside it they were winning games. And that was good enough for Emily, who figured that at Baylor, a Baptist school, she could suppress the truth about herself.

And for a while she did. But after a couple of years, in the months following her Final Four glory, she fell in love with her future spouse, a graduate student named Ashley Taylor. (The two chose the surname Nkosi after reading about
a South African child born HIV-positive.) The women fled Waco, believing their relationship would never be accepted there. Says Nkosi, "My internalized homophobia made me believe that if people found out I was gay, they would kill me."

A HOMOPHOBIC ATMOSPHERE infects more than individuals, though. When UConn and
Tennessee don't play each other, it costs the game millions of dollars and national exposure. But the negative recruiting rumors that surround the rift take an even bigger toll. It is no wonder that only one Division I women's hoops head coach is openly gay. "I get e-mails from coaches all the time who say, 'I want to be where you're at,'" says Portland State's Sherri Murrell. "But people are afraid for their jobs. They want to be known for their coaching, not their sexuality."

Those who are open about their sexual identity acknowledge the stigma. Sue Wicks, former star of the WNBA's New York Liberty and former assistant at St. Francis College, understands that at the coaching job fair, her background as an accomplished pro is an asset, but her status as an out lesbian is an overwhelming liability.

Google Wicks, and the first page of results reveals her sexual orientation, many times over. "It's so disproportionate to my accomplishments," says Wicks, who also served as an assistant at her alma mater, Rutgers. "I was born gay; I didn't do one drill to get better at being gay. But the basketball, which I had so much pride in, always came second to that."

The culture of the game conspires to drive women like Wicks underground. She was once asked to decline an interview for a gay publication because of how it could affect the program she was working for. "Head coaches are very aware of who is on staff," she says. And the potential for negative recruiting makes them hyperaware of their reputation, of their gay players, even of players' fashion choices. "It's common for coaches to say, 'That's a gay program, that's a black program,'" Wicks says. "People say it as a statement of fact, but what they're doing is negative recruiting."

The takeaway for coaches is clear: Be straight, or, at the very least, act straight. "If it weren't so destructive and awful, it would be laughable," Wicks says, before adding, "Let's see if I ever get another job."

Many lesbians who end up on the sidelines just feel trapped. Marpe says coaches of her generation adopted a persona of asexuality, or of being "married to the job." A few years after she took the San Diego job, Marpe was called into the vice president's office to defend herself against an anonymous charge that she was gay. She was compelled to deny it. "I'm not proud of that," Marpe says now. "But basically you're running scared, scared for your livelihood -- and not only at that school. You fear being blackballed for the rest of your life."

Some women, both at the college and professional level, decide to avoid the drama altogether. Kate Starbird, who spent nine years in the WNBA and Europe, is gay. And she wants no part of the closet. "I never considered coaching," she says. "I didn't want to live my life that way." These days, Starbird is a PhD candidate in
technology, media and society at Colorado.

Abby Conklin has also seen firsthand how the game behind the game works, as an All-SEC
player at Tennessee, as a former assistant at San Francisco and an academic researcher. Conklin says that an obsession with private lives hinders the development of young female coaches, gay or straight, by putting obstacles in the paths that most other sports rely on to restock coaching pools. For her master's thesis at San Francisco, Conklin sought to explain the diminishing number of female coaches. She isolated two primary factors: a "homonegative environment" and a lack of mentoring. Opening the door to a potential protégé, she explains, is frightening for a coach who resides in a closet. "There is a big fear of letting people in, because they worry about exposing their lifestyle. It led to my frustrations in coaching, and it's part of why I left. It's not an inclusive environment."

MAYBE IT'S TIME for the institutions overseeing the game to take a closer look at negative
recruiting. Multiple sources told The Magazine that there needs to be better education about, and enforcement of, recruiting ethics codes, especially on the part of the NCAA and the WBCA. They note that there's never been, to the best of their knowledge, a single sanction handed out to a program for homophobic recruiting. As long as the game's watchdogs do nothing, Carroll says, there's no reason to think the practice will end.

But the WBCA's Bass says change is, in fact, coming. Her organization has created an ethics committee to develop "best practices" for recruiting. Soon, the WBCA will hold seminars at Columbia with its Center for Coaching
Excellence. Coaches will gather to discuss, among other things, ethical recruiting.

Ultimately, though, homophobic recruiting will most likely be undone by the inexorable sweep of change in the world beyond the court. Harvard head coach Kathy Delaney-Smith has been attacking homophobia for decades. As far back as the 1980s, she demanded that her team captains be the first defense against whatever fear and closeting existed on the squad. "If I had that conversation now," she says, "my team would look at me like I had two heads."

Former University of Minnesota star and current New York Liberty center Janel McCarville has never before publicly discussed her sexuality, but only because she hasn't wanted the distraction. "Most of the homophobia is
derived from older generations," says the 28-year-old McCarville. The fact that she dates women "is widely accepted" among players her age and younger, she adds. "More and more of them are fine with who they are." The cycle is collapsing.

Lauren Ruffin, an attorney and consultant who coached youth teams in the DC area, says attitudes of teenage players are likewise shifting rapidly. "A lot of these kids are coming out early," she says. "If a coach says, 'Don't play for so-and-so because she's a lesbian,' they're going to say, 'It's one more reason for me to go there. And you're an a-hole for telling me that.'"

Meanwhile, Murrell's career has thrived at Portland State. She is 71-42 in her three-and-half seasons there. But frustrations persist. Murrell says she's tired of hearing about programs that lay claim to a "family atmosphere." She and her partner, Rena Shuman, are raising twin toddlers. "It's hard to swallow. There are a lot of great
programs with coaches who aren't married and don't have kids who create great environments."

And too many who are married with children who don't.

Luke Cyphers, a former senior writer at The Magazine, now teaches journalism at SUNY Plattsburgh.

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