By Dan Woog
It’s a little known, seldom discussed side effect of Title IX: As women’s college sports have gained prominence, the number of female coaches has declined. Even less noticed – or mentioned – are the employment obstacles faced by lesbian coaches. Two years ago, Amy Sandler decided to shine a light on that dark side of the athletic closet.
At the time, she was teaching in the women’s studies department at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. A former softball player and assistant coach at the University of Maryland, she was working on a Ph.D. Attending a conference on Title IX and gender equity issues, she realized an important area of study was not athletes, but the women – and, increasingly, men – who coach them. The number of female intercollegiate athletes is at an all-time high. The number of female head coaches, conversely, is at a historic low. Sandler wondered if heterosexism played a role. Using a snowball sample – people she knew, and people those people knew – as well as the Internet, Sandler identified 11 lesbian Division I head coaches. Most were closeted. Eight – including two who were completely out – agreed to be interviewed.
Six of the eight coaches believed that “sexism and homo-negativism” played a major role in the decline of female coaches.
“I felt like I was living a double life,” one woman said. “At times I felt it would be better if I left coaching altogether.”
Another closeted coach heard an administrator, evaluating a candidate for another position, say, “She’s not that kind” (meaning she was not gay). The coach perceived that comment to mean that the college would not hire a female coach believed to be a lesbian.
Sandler heard stories of male coaches with significantly weaker credentials being hired instead of unmarried women. “The word got out,” she says. “Colleges are not hiring single women. So some qualified candidates stop applying.
“Coaches know these things. But they can’t say or do anything, because they don’t want to out themselves,” Sandler continues. “So the stories never go beyond their colleagues. They never make the news.”
And, Sandler admits, stories are only anecdotal evidence. “Heterosexism and homonegativity” are difficult to prove.
When considering whether to apply for a higher or more prestigious position, Sandler says, lesbians – those who are out, as well as closeted – must consider how comfortable they will feel mingling in a new community.
That’s something few straight females – or most males – have to consider.
One coach, searching for an assistant, interviewed a lesbian. Usually, that process would include help finding the candidate’s spouse a job. But the head coach felt uncomfortable telling her athletic director about the candidate’s female partner – her college was in a state with no legal protection based on sexual orientation – so the woman did not receive the same opportunity others had.
Another woman left her head coaching position for reasons unrelated to sexuality. Her partner had a good job in the area, and did not want to move. Because the coach was not out, she felt her options with nearby schools were limited. She left the coaching profession altogether.
Earlier this year, Sandler presented her findings at the Sport, Sexuality and Culture Conference held at Ithaca College. The reaction, she says, was positive and excited.
She is gratified that people like Pat Griffin and major organizations back her work. The National Collegiate Athletic Association gave her a graduate research grant – one of only four awarded this year. “That speaks volumes about the interest of the NCAA,” she says. “And they have discussed my suggestions for changing policy. That speaks volumes too.”
Her suggestions include a close re-examination of the NCAA’s own anti-discrimination policy. It already includes sexual orientation. But, Sandler says, member institutions do not always follow the policy. One college, for example, has ruled that only spouses of coaches can be included in recruiting endeavors. In the many states where gay marriage is illegal, Sandler says, such an interpretation is inconsistent with NCAA standards.
Sandler also addressed the NCAA’s certification process for member institutions. A self-study covers a school’s environment for student-athletes of all sexual orientations. Sandler suggested a new section, assessing the environment for “coaches and administrators who do not identify as heterosexual.”
Sandler notes that the two out coaches she studied had vastly different experiences than the closeted women. “They’ve normalized their lesbian identities,” she says. One – a very successful coach – is seen as a role model by parents and students. Sandler hopes to study openly gay female coaches in greater depth.
But because many women do not feel comfortable being out in the college sports world, Sandler will continue to address the problem of vanishing female coaches.