Hoop schemes: as long as the bouncing ball is leading to the bank, many women are choosing to play from the closet – pressures on lesbian coaches and players to hide their sexual orientation

Susan C. Biemesderfer

Before April 5, basketball had been very good to Sherry’ Winn. After graduating as an academic all-American and conference MVP in 1986 from the University of Charleston in West Virginia, Winn started coaching–a career she says “I wanted since I was about 2.” Her reign at Montana State University-Northern in Havre amounted to a five-year, 137-20 rout, punctuated with five consecutive conference rifles and a national championship in 1993.

In 1996 Winn accepted an offer from the University of Southern Colorado in Pueblo, where she reconstructed the young team and more than tripled its wins in the 1997-1998 season. But momentum gave way to a bad dream when Winn checked her office voice mail the first Sunday in April and found a message from the university president. “He said the school was investigating me for sexual harassment,” Winn recalls. “It turned out some players had gone to see him that Tuesday. But no one asked me about it; they just started an investigation.” Within days news reports were recounting five players’ accounts of Winn and assistant coach Lynne Fitzgerald’s “promoting homosexuality” and spreading rumors that certain players were lesbians. (Neither Winn nor Fitzgerald have made a public statement regarding their sexual orientation.)

Sexual harassment investigations cleared both coaches–but not without a lot of legal wrangling–and Winn’s and Fitzgerald’s contracts were unceremoniously renewed May 15.

The women’s attorney, James Carleo, says the incident taught him a thing or two about the closet: “There really is little protection for gays and lesbians. Any legal strength comes from letting people know that if they bring these suits, there will be hell to pay.”

But in the world of women’s basketball, hell has historically been paid by the lesbian participants. What was news to Carleo is conventional lesbian wisdom on coming out in women’s basketball: Don’t do it. If you’re a coach, you could lose your recruits, your job, and life as you know it. If you’re a player, you could lose everything. Dribble around the pronouns, though, and you’ll see nothing but net–net as in winning, net as in money.

In an interview published in the January 19 issue of Sports Illustrated, University of Tennessee phenom Chamique Holdsclaw said all that was necessary in order to sum up the climate for lesbians in the sport: “I wanted to go to a straight school …. I was told not to go to Tennessee, but then I get down there, and Pat [Summitt, the head coach] is married and has a little boy, who comes to the games, and some of the other coaches have boyfriends.”

Indeed, if you worship women’s hoops, you know that some of its most visible figures in the media are the men who are married to the women stars. “That’s because `heterosexy’ sells,” says Pat Griffin, a professor in social justice education at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who has researched homophobia in women’s sports for more than a decade. “There is no coach of any big-time program who has come out publicly as a lesbian,” she says. “The pressure on these women to remain silent is profound, and now with the commercial aspect of the game, the lie is getting bigger.”

An understanding of just how much bigger requires a primer on life before the sport gained its current commercial respect. “Sexual orientation was more of a nonfactor; we just played and usually didn’t talk about it” says Mag Strittmatter, who began playing for Penn State in 1974, two years after the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender at educational facilities that receive federal aid. With Title IX the National Collegiate Athletic Association took over women’s programs from the Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, and “the emphasis turned to men, revenue, and image,” Strittmatter says.

Athletic directors immediately discovered image control and embraced what Griffin and others call “compulsory heterosexuality.” Liz McGovern, a former assistant for Penn State-University head coach Rene Portland, recalls a letter sent to recruits’ parents: “Basically, it said that there were no lesbians on the team, but almost half the team was, including our best player.” McGovern, who was not out to her boss, signed the letter against her better judgment.

Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Long Island, N.Y.-based Women’s Sports Foundation, describes the NCAA takeover as the main reason there is so much cover on the court today. “For some young women, it becomes a double life,” she says. “What are they to do? They wear bows in their hair, they wear makeup, do their nails. They play both sides of the street.”

On the lesbian side of the street, many fans take polite offense to the heterosexual cover. “It’s not about Pat Summitt or Sheryl Swoopes. Good for them,” says Joanne Arnold, a former assistant dean at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It’s the hype surrounding their heterosexual relationships in the absence of any recognition of other types of relationships–and knowing that there are lesbian players and coaches who feel they must hide.”

Mariah Burton Nelson, a former Stanford University basketball captain and star who came out in 1975, her sophomore year, says the sheer number of women in sports today makes it all the more offensive that the images favored by marketers don’t tell the whole story of women’s athletics. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, one in three high school girls now plays varsity sports, compared to one in 27 in 1972. “The great irony is that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to these women who pioneered the game–they opened the doors, took the risks, got nothing material back–and many of them were lesbians,” says Nelson, who still holds the Stanford record for most rebounds in a single game (20).

But for today’s players, who grew up practicing in front of the janitor at 6 a.m., basketball–a la Madison Avenue, with more exposure, money, and shoe deals than most dared imagine–is a formidable enticement. For them, it’s worth it to keep mum. And as long as the players stay quiet, coaches and league officials likely will do the same.

Nevertheless, some observers say the conventional wisdom–the assumption that coming out kills careers–underestimates the fans who are ready to look beyond the mascara. “Folks want to win,” Arnold says. “A coach who’s proved herself will remain at the top, even if she comes out and says she’s a lesbian.”

Case in point: Beth Bricker, associate director of athletics and head women’s basketball coach at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash. A 31-year coaching veteran, Bricker came out publicly at a 1992 prejudice training session for Puget Sound faculty and staff. Six coaching seasons later, she describes the reaction of her peers and parents of players as “extremely positive.” And of the administration, she says, “If there were going to be some kind of retribution, I think I would have experienced it by now.” But in the same breath Bricker says the rules aren’t always the same. “When you’re talking about Division I schools,” she says, “that’s where the recruiting can get nasty.”

But for those in the game, coming out is still a bigger question than recruiting, Arnold says, adding, “It’s also about how honestly and authentically people want to live their lives and how much energy they’re willing to devote to hiding.”

And while most of the hope for these women still involves caveats, Winn is not sure she can take the cover others have in order to remain successful. “I wear sweats to practice,” she says. “I don’t wear makeup; it’s not a statement–I just don’t like how it feels. I’m just me. And I think that ought to be enough.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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