Courtney Graham said everything was going smoothly with her assistant coaching job with Drake University’s women’s basketball team. The Bulldogs were building the program, and Graham said she was handling her recruiting and scouting responsibilities well, resulting in bonuses and positive performance reviews.
That changed, she said, when she brought her now-wife to a game to sit in the family section in November 2014.
In a federal lawsuit filed in late December, Graham alleges that as a result, head coach Jennie Baranczyk ostracized her from the team, told her she was not acting like herself, diminished her duties and asked her to resign in May 2015.
Graham turned in her resignation a month later after, she said, undue pressure from Baranczyk.
“She loves coaching,” Graham’s attorney, Tina Muhammad, told the Tribune. Graham, now married with children, declined to comment to the Tribune directly. “If you think of a traditional coach who is only focused on scouting, games, plays, what are we doing next week — that’s her focus.
“She wasn’t on any type of agenda. She wasn’t looking for homophobic behavior. It did blindside her. She was just there doing a job.”
Drake has denied the allegations. A university statement in reply to the suit said the school and Baranczyk “have a strong commitment to diversity, tolerance and non-discrimination.”
Regardless of the suit’s outcome, the case has stirred lingering questions about homophobia in college athletics and the specific challenges lesbian coaches face. Stereotypes about women in sports lead to a don’t-ask-don’t-tell atmosphere that keeps many closeted, coaches and advocates told the Tribune.
“There is still a lot of fear out there among lesbian coaches about coming out and suffering professional consequences as a result,” said Pat Griffin, a Massachusetts Amherst professor who has studied and written about homophobia and sports.
“There’s this whole stereotype that there’s a lot of lesbians in sports and it’s a big paradise and everyone is happy and nobody has a problem anymore. I often hear we have to focus on homophobia in men’s sports because women’s sports is so terrific. It’s a little bit of sexism and homophobia.”
While public support has strengthened in recent years for college athletes who come out — including former Missouri football player Michael Sam, UMass men’s basketball player Derrick Gordon and Purdue women’s basketball player Bree Horrocks — Griffin said gay men and women in sports must navigate homophobia differently.
WNBA star Brittney Griner came out after her college career at Baylor and said her coach, Kim Mulkey, had told players to remain closeted. Stereotypes about female athletes, Griffin said, can cause coaches to fear how they and their program will be perceived.
“If a gay man comes out on his team, there isn’t the assumption that, ‘Oh, my god, the rest of them must be too.’ In some ways, it’s perceived as less of a risk (than for female players),” Griffin said. “And as (a male coach, you) do not have to worry: ‘Will this affect my ability to recruit as a straight ally (to gay players)?’ The stakes are different because of the different ways homophobia works in men’s and women’s sports.”
‘You want to be honest’
It’s even rarer — and in many ways more difficult — for gay college coaches to publicly confirm their sexuality.
From subtle aspects of coaching such as including family in media guides or inviting the team to their home for a cookout to more significant areas such as recruiting and job security, the culture of college athletics continues to make their sexuality feel like a career risk.
In Portland, Ore., where former Portland State coach Sherri Murrell said “lesbians are as common as food trucks,” Murrell’s sexuality was no secret and no big deal. But she made national headlines with the simple — and typical — decision to include her wife and children in the media guide.
“Much has changed but much has not,” said Murrell, who became the first openly gay Division I basketball coach in 2009 after taking the job in 2007. “If (coaches) are outspoken or more public about it, it’s just one more thing to cause them to not get a job or cause them to get fired possibly. In recruiting, everyone has this fear.
“The world is changing, but it seems like there’s this cloud that continues to hang over sports and coaching, especially for women coaches.”
That feeling is compounded by the fact that men have increasingly been hired to coach women’s teams, pushing women out of these jobs. In 1972, more than 90 percent of women’s college teams were coached by women; that number fell to 40 percent in 2015.
Graham’s lawsuit against Drake is far from the first of its kind.
In 2015, former Minnesota-Duluth coaches in women’s hockey, softball and women’s basketball sued the school for sexual orientation discrimination. The case remains in discovery and could go to trial this summer.
Former women’s golf coach Katie Brenny won a sex and sexual orientation discrimination lawsuit against Minnesota after her duties were reduced to secretarial work when the golf director learned she is a lesbian.
Former Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland had a “no lesbians” policy for decades and ultimately resigned in 2007 after a former player filed a lawsuit that was settled out of court.
At Belmont University, a private Christian school in Nashville, Tenn., women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe agreed to resign in 2010 after telling her players she and her partner of eight years were expecting a baby. Howe signed a confidentiality agreement with Belmont that prohibits her from speaking specifically about her parting with the university.
“I knew there would be a risk in coming out,” she said. But she said she grew tired of being closeted, especially as she was planning a family.
“It’s hard when you’re hiding part of yourself at work when you’re trying to be a role model to 20-year-olds,” said Howe, now executive director of the Nashville LGBT chamber of commerce. “There are young people taking their lives. There are young people getting kicked out of their homes and families. I (was) on a daily basis sending this message: It’s OK to be gay as long as you don’t tell anyone or hide it. Or maybe I (was) sending the message it’s not OK.
“It finally became such an internal struggle that it was affecting a lot of parts of my life. It affected how well I was coaching, my happiness, my relationships with friends and my partner. You get tired of lying. I wasn’t outright lying, but I wasn’t being honest. If you’re a person of integrity, you want to be honest.”
Changing the Culture
Vanderbilt women’s basketball coach Stephanie White, a former WNBA head coach with the Fever and assistant with the Sky, is currently the lone publicly gay Division I head basketball coach. She said she must gauge a team’s inclusive atmosphere before accepting a job.
At Vanderbilt, her wife and kids were mentioned during an introduction to the public, and the family was welcomed on a giant video board — and she knew she had made the right decision.
“Vanderbilt as a university doesn’t shy away from social issues,” White said. “They encourage students to have a voice. They encourage dialogue on tough subjects. I like that.
“One of the things (before taking the job was) I just talked about my family and (how) family being around me is important. I read body language as much as what is coming out of someone’s mouth.”
Coaches said they need straight allies and appreciate it when a lesbian coach finds the courage to speak out. But a significant, long-lasting culture change that makes lesbian coaches feel safe in coming out must be implemented by top college administrators, who are typically straight men.
“It’s up to college administrators to set the tone,” Griffin said. “I don’t think we see enough of that. I don’t think a lot of college administration even sees it as a priority because they’re too busy thinking about how to make money.”
Progress has been made, coaches acknowledged. A generational divide on the issue is evident. Today’s players and young assistant coaches — straight and gay — are more comfortable with players expressing their sexuality, coaches said.
“I work with athletes and they’re like: ‘Gay teammates? Who cares as long as they help us win,’” Griffin said. “But when you talk to the coaches, they’re still concerned: ‘What do you do if you have teammates dating?’ or ‘What if I have a lesbian on the team?’ They’re still asking really basic questions.”
LGBT SportSafe, an inclusion program for college administrators and coaches to create accepting atmospheres, works with 26 athletic departments across the nation and partnered with the America East Conference. The NCAA set firmer requirements in 2016 for sites to host or bid for major events, and it withdrew championship games from North Carolina because of a controversial bill many believe discriminates against transgender people.
But until the atmosphere feels safe for gay coaches to come out, some say, enough hasn’t changed.
“It still is a big deal because people can’t feel they can be their authentic selves as a coach,” Howe said. “Until we see more out coaches, I’m not going to feel like that culture has changed.”
By Shannon Ryan, ChicagoTribune.com