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Gay Athletes on Campus: Progress and Prejudice in College Sports

By MacKenzie Ryan

University of Denver doctoral student Paul Tontz admits he did not anticipate the immediate impact his dissertation research would have at the Colorado campus and on the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Tontz's study aims to accurately interpret, from an administrative standpoint, the experience self-identified gay males have while participating in Division I college sports.

In a confidential setting, Tontz questions volunteers about what he calls their "invisibility/visibility factor." In other words, Tontz explains, "Can they reveal their identity?"

"It's like a chameleon," the doctorate student says about his subjects' attitude. "The gay athlete can change their personality according to their environment."

Tontz's research is relatively cutting-edge in that it singularly addresses self-identified gay male athletes. The NCAA, tickled pink by Tontz's findings, now sponsors a research grant for the doctorate student because his information can be used in outreach programs such as It Takes A Team.

Diversity Advocacy at the NCAA
It Takes A Team is an NCAA-endorsed project that addresses homophobia in sports. The project is headed by Pat Griffin, former social justice professor and advocate with more than 20 years experience, and sponsored by the Women's Sports Foundation. Tennis player Martina Navratilova helped the Foundation raise money for the cause, which began officially in 2002.

Griffin is at the forefront of the battle for LGBT student-athlete awareness. She collaborates with Mary Wilfest, of NCAA's Health, Safety and Welfare group, and Charlotte Westerhaus, the NCAA's vice president of diversity and inclusion. Griffin makes presentations at NCAA conferences to help life skills instructors. Schools participating in the NCAA's Life Skills program, a diversity training course, get Griffin's It Takes A Team DVD.

"[I] am now working on a committee to design a national climate survey that will be sponsored by the NCAA looking at a variety of climate issues in athletic departments related to “diversity” issues including LGBT issues," Griffin says about current joint efforts with the NCAA. "We are pilot testing the instrument this spring."

Publicity stirred by Tontz's research comes on the heels of an NCAA convention held January 2008 in Nashville, Tenn. The convention focused on LGBT student-athlete needs and experiences, homophobia, as well as negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation. The audience included more than 200 college presidents, athletic directors, coaches, and other faculty representatives from across the country.

The convention—and Tontz—arrived in no short order for the NCCA.

According to Westerhaus, the convention was all Griffin's idea. Griffin admitted she approached Westerhaus after the NCAA hosted a panel on racism in 2007. But anyone who watched the news in 2007 witnessed the veins of homophobia running through professional and collegiate sports.

When former NBA player John Amaechi came out to the media, guard Tim Hardaway blasted back with anti-gay comments on ESPN. GLAAD's new Sports Media Program, directed by Ted Rybka, publicly denounced his statements.

"As a media organization, [GLAAD's] work ensures the lives of student-athletes are told in a fair, accurate, and inclusive manner, whether it’s on ESPN or in the college daily newspaper," Rybka explains. "Our role is to lead the way in cultural change through the images that fans and athletes see and the words that they read and hear." GLAAD, the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), and It Takes A Team are the most established advocacy groups involved in sports. The NCAA maintains close ties with each—and invited representatives from all three, as well as John Amaechi, to speak at the January convention.

The Harris Case: A Breakthrough Lawsuit
Penn State University basketball player Jen Harris filed a discrimination lawsuit against her university and Coach Rene Portland also in 2007. Supported by NCLR's Sports Project, Harris's case represented a LGBT milestone—and an eyesore—in collegiate athletics: It thrust homophobia in coaching onto the national stage.

The lawsuit eventually settled out of court. Portland resigned after being accused of practicing negative recruiting based on sexual orientation for more than 20 years; she sought to prevent key recruits from going to a rival school by telling these young superstars the other team was, for example, full of lesbians.

Another major player advocating gay rights in sports, Helen Carroll heads NCLR's Sports Project. She names the Harris case as "the biggest thing concerning LGBT student-athletes ever." Carroll would know—she is the go-to woman for persecuted gay athletes and coaches across the United States. She says if coaches or student-athletes approach her about a discrimination issue at a particular school, she addresses it with the athletic director before legal action needs to be taken.

Carroll applauds the NCAA for its efforts to educate institutions about best practices over the past five years. "I think they’ve come so far because they’re really addressing the topic and bringing it to their membership," she says. Nevertheless, she doesn't hesitate to note how slowly college sports culture accepts gays: "It is the typical to have the athletic community be unaccepting of homosexual behavior even on the most liberal LGBT campuses."

Citing social education as the means for further change, Rybka of GLAAD also defends the NCAA's non-discrimination policy and its initiative to improve the lives of LGBT student-athletes. "The NCAA’s policies affect over 1,200 colleges and universities. The fact that it has a non-discrimination policy is a great step towards better inclusion, considering how deeply rooted homophobia in sports is," Rybka comments. "It’s an important first step to ensure that athletes feel comfortable being who they are when they are at practice, getting instruction from their coaches in the locker room and during games."

"I think that Charlotte Westerhaus as [NCAA] vice president of diversity and inclusion is ensuring that LGBT student-athletes are being heard," Rybka adds. "But it all comes down to education—educating athletic directors, coaches, staff, faculty, athletes, and student bodies."

Though she also claims the organization has come a long way, Griffin states, in response to questions regarding NCAA's stance on LGBT tolerance, "I see the NCAA cautiously moving forward, especially on the education front."

NCAA: Advocacy Not Action
Despite the outreach initiatives, the NCAA's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the very branch that hosted the Nashville convention in January, has no power to enforce a tolerance policy on any institution. Nor can it field complaints from LGBT students who feel they've been discriminated against by their coach, administration, or university.

According to Westerhaus, her office's initiatives are education, outreach, and public awareness. What if a gay football player comes forward and claims social persecution at the hands of his athletic organization and university?

"We do not resolve the complaint at the NCAA," Westerhaus replies. "However this is what we can do as an organization: We sponsor a public forum; we sponsor free advanced diversity education with a focus on homophobia. We can’t enforce policies."

Westerhaus says the NCAA has a "two-pronged" principle of non-discrimination. The organization's policy protects individuals of all race, color, creed, sexual preference, and sexual identity from discrimination, but the NCAA cannot make each and every collegiate institution accept its policy of tolerance.

It also cannot reprimand the university that doesn't stick to its own policy, such as in the case of Jen Harris and Penn State University.

"NCAA does not change or enforce institutional policy," Westerhaus reiterates. Advocacy is left up to external organizations such as the Women's Sports Foundation and Carroll's Sport Project at the NCLR.

"Policy is only as good as you adhere to it," Westerhaus explains. "In my own experience, many institutions have policies that cover sexual orientation. It’s up to the institution to cover their policy."

Even Griffin buys into this hand-off governing approach.

"I’d like to see [the NCAA] make more recommendations for inclusive policy enactment at the individual school level," she says. "It would also be terrific if they were willing at some point to take a stronger stand on LGBT discrimination like they did on the Native American mascot issue.

"That was controversial and I am sure they will be cautious about LGBT issues. The leverage they have are NCAA-sponsored tournaments," Griffin says. "Other than that, individual schools make and enforce their own policies."

Many institutions still don't cover sexual preference and sexual identity in their non-discrimination policies. This is something Westerhaus wants to see change: "I enjoy broad-based education policy. It improves education for all; it improves the climate of inclusion at the institution."

Back in the Trenches—Meeting Gay Athletes Face to Face
This is where the inquisitive Tontz enters the picture.

Currently pursuing his doctorate in Higher Education, Tontz drew inspiration for his dissertation from a combination of personal and professional experience. An athlete his whole life, Tontz explains, "I was drawn to sports to make myself more masculine and I'm not sure if that was conscious. My self-esteem was not the highest. I used [sports] to bolster my self-esteem."

After earning a Masters of Education from the University of South Florida, Tontz became an academic advisor to "questioning athletes."

"I recently came out within the last seven years. When I was working there, I wasn’t completely confident and self-assured with my own identity. I felt being gay wasn’t accepted in the athletics department."

The University of Denver doctorate student says he felt remorse at the time and regrets now not being there for the gay athletes he advised. He says he wants all athletes to experience more positive support whether they remain out or closeted.

The lack of literature on gay male student-athletes was the major professional reason Tontz is on this fact-finding mission. (A colleague of his is doing similar research on female athletes.)

Part of the findings, Tontz says, are "reaffirming some of the stereotypes of gay athletes." For example, he hasn't been able to interview any openly gay athletes in contact sports such as football yet.

"I did interview a closeted wrestler, but it's hard to make a generalization from that," Tontz says. Wrestling is often perceived as "very sexualized" because two men have a lot of physical contact, including groping and bending. The interview provided Tontz with the reasonable suspicion that the athlete's "invisibility" factor stemmed from wrestling's extreme contact.

"Another interesting finding is that a lot of openly gay athletes participate in [sports that] most people expect them to," Tontz says. He has interviewed openly gay swimmers who feel accepted because there are female members on the team. "The higher level of probability of interaction made a big difference for one swimmer because he could come out to girls on the team, talk about fashion, things heterosexual males might not accept."

Likewise, he's found respect among teammates comes from the swimmer's performance, which is entirely individual. "The higher level of ability, the higher level of performance they have, the more likely the teammates are to look the other way," Tontz says.

Bisexual Students, Gay Graduates
"A lot of athletes who play football, basketball, baseball, etc. identify as bisexual," Tontz says. Many of these people who've contact him after graduation now identify as gay. He refers to this situation as a "transition identity."

"They buy themselves a certain level of capital, a certain level of acceptance, because 'I sleep with women and my teammates are okay with that,'" Tontz says. His study concerns only "self-identified gay male athletes, not transsexual, or bisexual men who have/had sex with men."

Tontz has interviewed many openly gay athletes who feel rejected by or isolated from teammates and coaches who, they feel, do not relate to being gay. However, he's also found these student-athletes have a difficult time relating to the rest of the LGBT community.

In one case, the young man expressed his feelings of "being lost" because, he said, while his teammates don't understand being gay, his LGBT friends don't understand being a college athlete.

Tontz says he can't help but be sympathetic to his subjects' stories. "Some are operating at 50 percent of their athletic potential because they're stressed out all the time, in some cases, [to the point of being] suicidal," he explains. "It takes so much out of you to live a double life: one with your gay friends and one with your heterosexual friends and teammates." Most subjects come out first to a close female friend.

Pointing out his true reason for pursuing the study, Tontz adds, "No one should have to live a half, marginal life." Each of the young men Tontz interviewed has experienced what the researcher refers to as a "turning point" because, he says, "They are tired of living a dual life."

Many of the interviewees have conveyed to Tontz that the athletic administration at their college doesn't effectively create an inclusive environment for gays. Moreover, many subjects reported feeling the creation of such a program was reactive—done only in response to a homophobic slur yelled at a gay athlete, for example.

From the perspective of his subjects, Tontz says, "There's not a lot being done to prepare coaches. A lot of coaches don't think [being gay] occurs on their team." This is a myth Tontz says he specifically aims to dispel.

A Focus on Legal Responsibility
Calling the NCAA and athletic administrations "a tough nut to crack," Griffin admits, "College administrators, for the most part, I think would like to avoid this topic."

"Of course, there are exceptions and many more schools are sponsoring education programs for their athletic departments on LGBT issues. I do several a year and I know others do this as well," she explains. "That is progress, but many athletic directors do not see this as a priority topic."

"I try to present the perspective that it is a legal protection issues—that more LGBT athletes and coaches will file lawsuits if they believe they are being discriminated against. Not educating coaches and other staff and student-athletes about their legal responsibilities is inviting trouble and lots of bad publicity."

Affirming the importance of education, Rybka says that though administrations have the necessary non-discriminations in place, the focus needs to be put on coaches, fans, and teammates. He also points out that gays need to be accepted by a larger sports culture.

"It’s important to have increased visibility of LGBT athletes at the collegiate level. But it’s just as important to have increased visibility for the weekend warriors in the local softball league and for the professionals we see on TV," the GLAAD sports media director says. "We have a long way to go in terms of creating a welcoming environment for LGBT athletes at all levels of sports."

Despite this grim realization, Griffin says, "This is an exciting time to be doing this work. More athletes are out. More of their teammates are accepting or at least tolerant, both men and women. I have been at this a long time and I definitely see movement in the right direction."

"Ultimately, the change is evolutionary, not revolutionary though," she adds. "Younger generations of LGBT athletes are more open and their heterosexual teammates are more accepting. As they move into leadership positions athletics, they will change. In the meantime, it is up to advocacy groups like NCLR and It Takes A Team to keep pushing the schools and the sport organizations as well as working with them to change things."

Things continue to evolve at a grass-roots level as well. Griffin has found more and more schools are starting LGBT student-athlete groups. Others are taking matters into their own hands: Openly gay Purdue swimmer Andrew Langenfeld plans to start a Web site in which LGBT athletes can chat and find various resources. Photographer Jeff Sheng exhibits his work on openly gay and lesbian student-athletes and tours college campuses throughout the country.

The Final Frontier—Addressing the "T"
What's the next step for the NCAA and LGBT advocates? Carroll of the National Center for Lesbian Rights says she's trying to establish understanding about transgender athletes for the junior high, high school, and collegiate levels. "No one’s known how to address it," she says about transgender issues in sports. "There haven’t been models out there. It’s just beginning to come to the attention of athletic administrators that there are transgender students out there participating in competitive sports."

Griffin agrees, "I think the NCAA has made tremendous strides over the last five years in beginning to address LGB issues. They have a way to go to really taking on the T."