By Dan Woog
They’re buried deep inside glossy media guides or in the middle of websites that take several clicks to reach. They’re usually succinct: “Coach So-and-So is married to (spouse’s name). They live with their (x number of) children in (insert town here).”
Those brief lines say a lot. Their absence says even more.
Most people who read coaches’ bios – sportswriters, avid fans, potential recruits and their parents – don’t give them much thought. But Austin Stair Calhoun has.
A doctoral student at the University of Minnesota, she developed two research studies examining the biographies of college head coaches. She wanted to see whether coaching bios reinforced heterosexism in athletics – and how coaches who did not fit “heteronormative” patterns were portrayed.
Calhoun did not just wander into her project. A media-relations professional, she had written coaches’ bios at Washington and Lee University and the University of Delaware. There was a pattern: Male coaches were often described as “single and living in (town name).” Women were not. She wanted to explore those differences.
Working with Dr. Nicole LaVoi, associate director of the University of Minnesota’s Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, Calhoun looked first at the biographies of Big Ten varsity coaches. She coded 10 items, ranging from gender of the coach and sport to personal information, such as hobbies, spouses, children and pets. All, she said, are “markers of traditional nuclear family narratives.”
A second study included major Division I conferences, including the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Big East, as well as regionally representative Division III leagues. That study looked at over 1,900 biographies.
The first study found no mention of any gay or lesbian partners. The second showed only two: a male head coach of the female softball team at Oregon State University and the female field hockey coach at Wake Forest.
Though one hypothesis – that D-III schools, with less rigorous athletic demands and tamer recruiting battles, would be a more hospitable environment for openly gay coaches – was shattered, Calhoun looks at the glass as half full.
“I think it’s fantastic that there are at least two college coaches who are openly gay in their bios,” she says. “At least we’re talking about it.”
Calhoun also found something that wasn’t there. Over 35 percent of the coaches’ bios contained no information at all about spouses or partners.
“It’s improbable to think that only 0.1 percent of coaches are gay or lesbian,” she says. “There are people who are out in many facets of their lives. They’re just not out in their online coaching bios.”
Of the 690 coaches with no mention of a significant other, 57 percent were male, 43 percent female. They fell into two categories. Some bios included “some level of personal information,” such as interests or community work. Others did not. “When a bio stops at high school or college, that’s indicative of something,” Calhoun says.
“Over 1,200 coaches have some personal text. So the absence of that becomes visible. It’s almost like not including personal information is a way of implicitly outing someone. People reading the biography may say, ‘Why isn’t there any information about this person’s personal life?'”
Coaching is a high-stress profession, Calhoun notes. “There are plenty of barriers for women. In some cases, there is no time for a female coach to have a family. But lots of coaches say ‘our team is a family.’ If there’s no traditional family involved, that’s an interesting dichotomy.”
LaVoi passes along an interesting saying: “The best qualification for a female coach is to be divorced, with no kids.” Calhoun interprets that to
mean: “You’re ‘safe’ in terms of sexual orientation, but you’re not distracted by children.”
The feedback to the studies has been “fantastic,” she says. The pilot research was presented last year at the Sport, Sexuality and Culture Conference at Ithaca College, and published by the Women’s Sports Foundation. The national study was presented at the Tucker Center, and is being submitted to a professional journal.
Calhoun recently finished her coursework, and is embarking on her Ph.D. dissertation. The topic is “Gatekeeping Mechanisms of NCAA Media Professionals.” She’ll examine how sports information directors’ staffs prepare coaches’ biographies, with an eye toward how and why information on personal lives is included (or not).
“I want to see whether it’s the result of institutionalized homophobia” – meaning it comes from the culture of sports and individual institutions – “or if it’s internalized” (resulting from the coaches’ own desire to maintain privacy).
“This all started as a little idea of mine,” Calhoun says. “Now it may be the research of my career.”
Years from now, her own biography should make for very interesting reading.