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Out of bounds.

Lesbians in college basketball have been pressured to play in the closet, but that could all be changing

In competitive team sports there are at least two givens: One is that players want to win. The other is that being or appearing homosexual will bring shame to the team and the sport. In the world of National Collegiate Athletic Association women's basketball perhaps there's even more pressure to follow these precepts because colleges are desperate not to blow their best shot at legitimizing women's team sports. More than 4 million fans attended NCAA women's basketball games last year. Networks and cable stations now televise them. A professional league is in its first year, and the U.S. Olympic team struck gold last summer. This month's Division I Final Four, scheduled for March 28-30, is already a sellout and will be televised nationally.

As intercollegiate women's basketball attracts more of the national spotlight, the sport also becomes a conspicuous showcase for homophobic practices that have until recently gone mostly unchallenged. Yet as more women enter college as out lesbians, as lesbian fans demand change, and as more colleges adopt antidiscrimination policies, NCAA basketball is also poised as the most visible arena for a showdown between the new and old guards. Still, even with a shift of attitudes in the offing, old behaviors continue to dominate the game. "I think there are still more out lesbians in the military than in Division I sports," says Pat Griffin, associate professor of social justice education at the University of Massachusetts--Amherst. "I would say that Division I is definitely hostile," she adds, referring to the highest-profile segment of NCAA competition. Currently there are no openly lesbian Division I coaches, and few players are out, even on campus, says Griffin, a national expert on homophobia in women's sports.

"I think some coaches tell their players how to dress and how to wear their hair, and there have been some teams on the college ranks that have had makeover seminars for their teams," says Griffin. "There's been a history of that throughout sport: teaching women how to look more feminine, as if that were some kind of hedge against being accused of being a lesbian." Griffin and others say that Division II and III and other programs outside the NCAA are less homophobic but that programs where coaches and players are comfortably and safely out of the closet are still rare.

Players who are suspected of being lesbian or who come out may face loss of playing time or scholarships. In 1991 Pennsylvania State University coach Rene Portland faced allegations of discrimination from protesters who claimed she barred lesbians from joining her program. I will not have [lesbians] on my team," Portland told the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986. While observers both on and off campus expressed outrage, the administration never publicly reprimanded Portland, and she continues to coach. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Few coaches are as openly homophobic as Portland--still, many did not want to speak to The Advocate. But in general some coaches are accused of conveying the message that being out is not OK. Griffin says those coaches not only attempt to control players' expression of identity but also forbid them to seek gay-friendly campus counselors or join gay and lesbian Student organizations.

Jennifer Self, 26, who played at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1988 to 1992, was outed by a teammate during her freshman year. "It was a pretty horrible time for me. I was pretty suicidal and all that stuff that people go through when they're first coming out," Self says. "So the basketball part was that much more difficult because it's supposed to be this family and yet What it was was a duplicate of what I feared most, which was being rejected by my family ... some people supporting me, other people outright rejecting me, and other people just ignoring the whole thing."

Such homophobic denial not only affects students but is also entrenched among some coaches and administrators. "Alive and well today, no doubt about it, is the fact that some women won't get hired because they have short hair or they're not married," says Mills College athletic director Helen Carroll. In addition, insiders say unethical coaches pressure potential recruits to choose a particular program by claiming that a competing program is coached by or is full of lesbians. Tara VanDerveer, Stanford University head coach and former coach of the U.S. Olympic team, stresses that recruiting pressures play into some coaches' decisions about coming out. However, she also notes progress: "I think the WBCA [Women's Basketball Coaches Association] is trying to do things to make everyone comfortable regardless of background."

The NCAA has also started addressing homophobia through educational programming, as have select institutions. Mills College, a Division III women's school, educates its athletes on a range of issues including homophobia, says Carroll, who as head coach at the University of North Carolina at Asheville in 1984 was the first woman coach to win a national championship. She tells coaches that teammates are drawn together by working through difficult issues. "You'll see results right out on the court," Carroll says.

One Division I lesbian coach says that although she's not out herself, she does refer students to supportive counseling and confronts homophobia on her team. "I just won't discuss my personal life with anyone until asked," the coach says.

Carroll, Griffin, and others believe that more than anyone else, the student athletes may demand change. "Athletes are coming into college having already come out in high school," Griffin says. "They don't assume there's something wrong with them. They're not going to be as easy to control by closeted lesbian coaches or homophobic heterosexual coaches."

In the meantime many lesbian fans are frustrated. "I've gone to the Final Four and seen some out lesbians be turned off by how closeted the whole party is," says Mariah Burton Nelson, author of The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football and a former Stanford basketball player. "It's a huge festival. It draws lots and lots of passionate lesbians. And yet very, very few are out, so it has a weird homophobic cloud over it." Some fans have taken matters into their own hands. Molly O'Neil and Maggie King cofounded Husky Hoops, a lesbian and gay fan club for the University of Washington women's basketball team. Members of the fan club have been visible at home games, the Final Four, and the WBCA convention, forcing the lesbian issue with fans and coaches.

Self notes that from a player's perspective, lesbian-positive fan support can be invaluable: "My last game my senior year, a bunch of my friends from the gay student alliance there put up these huge signs in Harmon Gym that said THREE CHEERS FOR A QUEER THREE-POINTER! and then GO GIRL! LOVE, YOUR FAIRY GODMOTHERS, with the pink triangles on them and everything. It was one of the proudest moments of my life, a time where I really felt like I brought all of who I was to something that I loved so much."


"It was not just my sexuality--I was a powerful woman," Pam Parsons says about the scandal in 1981 that ended her career as a college basketball coach. She adds that being a lesbian was not seen as threatening as being a winning women's coach, in the male-dominated sports world. "There was not going to be a moving over and allowing women to participate in sports," she says. Nevertheless, her tenure at the University of South Carolina came to a quick end when her relationship with one of her players was exposed.

Parsons and Tina Buck had met in 1979 in an Atlanta sports bar, when Parsons was 33 and Buck was 17. After the couple fell in love, Parsons recruited Buck to play for her team--which, previously unranked, made it to the championship Final Four in 1980. However, when another athlete's parent complained to the university president about Parsons and Buck, Parsons was forced to resign. With Parsons's departure, the relationship became public, pushing the issue of lesbians and sports into the headlines. Parsons sued Sports Illustrated for $75 million in response to its negative portrayal of the couple. Parsons and Buck were eventually sent to prison for lying about their relationship while under oath during court proceedings.

Today, Parsons, 49, and Buck, 33, are still together, sharing a home in Atlanta. Buck and Parsons work as massage therapists, and Parsons is also a spiritual coach. In a recent telephone interview they say they have learned valuable lessons from their experience, but both agree that the world around them has progressed very little over the past 15 years. Buck, who left the South Carolina team shortly after Parsons's departure and was never signed by another Division I school, remains concerned about young lesbians in sport.

However, both women seem to understand those criticizing them for starting a relationship while Buck was still in high school--but say they were destined to be together. "I would not say it was the right thing to fall in love with a player," Parsons says. "It's the story of wrong timing. Too bad. But most people [are not ruined] for a lifetime in their profession for it."
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Title Annotation:includes related article on how a woman college basketball coach lost her job and went to jail for falling in love with her woman player; lesbianism in college basketball
Author:Schwartz, Harriet L.
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Mar 18, 1997
Previous Article:Two for the road.
Next Article:Tap Dogs.

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