When Michael Sam came out as gay in the midst of pursuing a career in professional football, he made history. This news was not too far removed from the historic Supreme Court decision to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) thereby making it illegal to bar gay and lesbian couples from getting married in all 50 United States. I remember joking with my hallmates during my first year at Haverford that a varsity team party was no place to pick up guys, but the divide between male sports and the rest of the country on embracing homosexuality is no joke while the rest of the country has been embracing homosexuality, male sports teams have fallen behind. The National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) ran a survey in 2012 that showed only 3% of male athletes openly identified as queer, versus Gallup’s 2012 result of 6.4% for all young adults in the United States aged 18-29. At Haverford College, during the 2015-2016 school year, only 1 out of 200 male varsity athletes identified openly as queer, a rate of only 0.5% according to a study I conducted last spring. The full survey methodology can be found here.
Why the discrepancy? I turned to a number of people on men’s varsity teams, members of SAGA (the Sexuality and Gender Alliance), and the Director of Athletics, Wendy Smith, to see what they thought about the issue. Since the study was anonymous, the male athletes I interviewed are not identified by name or team.
One male varsity athlete speculated that because his team has a heteronormative culture, the recruiting process favors people who fit in with that kind of social atmosphere. “The coach is frequently talking to players about how they like the [prospective] student…and sometimes straight up asking us how cool the person is,” he said.. “How they carry themselves and interact with the team is a really big indicator of how they’ll fit with the team…Coach makes [recruiting] decisions slightly based on that.”
Another male varsity athlete wondered if unsupportive high school teams weed out queer men before they reach college. “If you look at the college teams, all these players were really talented in high school and if someone for whatever reason wasn’t…able…to join their high school team or didn’t feel comfortable on it…what chance do they have to join a college team?” he said, adding that walking on to the team is not generally possible for his sport
Wendy Smith, Director of Athletics, listed numerous efforts that have been made in the Department of Athletics to train coaches about the importance of LGBTQ inclusion. She listed events including a presentation by Qui Alexander about trans* athletes given to athletics staff and a workshop with Alexander and invited speaker Kye Allums on LGBT issues, focusing on trans* student athletes
“Transgender student-athletes, as opposed to LGBQ student-athletes, are governed by some very specific NCAA legislation,” said Smith via email. “We talked about the issues faced by transgender student-athletes in general and those pertaining to NCAA legislation in particular. While much of the conversations centered around competitive teams, we also looked at the issue in regard to our athletic facilities which are open to all members of the bi-co community, not just those individuals who compete on Haverford’s varsity teams.”
Smith finished by saying she “believe[s] all of our coaches work to create team cultures that will maximize their opportunity for success. As such, any aspect of a student-athlete’s diversity…is secondary to the individual’s ability to contribute to a team’s success within Haverford’s framework of trust, concern and respect.”
The athletics department has made a specific commitment to diversity, including sexual orientation. The Student-Athlete Advisory Committee released this statement: “Following the Honor Code’s ideals of trust, concern and respect, we as student-athletes will create a community invested in diversity across differences of race, sexual orientation, gender and religion. We will maintain an open and safe environment by making Haverford community members and beyond feel respected on and off the field.”
It is encouraging that the Department of Athletics is taking queer issues seriously and taking specific action to accommodate and welcome transgender student-athletes. Unfortunately, several students have reported negative experiences related to queer identities in athletics spaces at Haverford.
“I personally don’t feel comfortable at the GIAC, and I know other queer students who feel similarly,” said a member of SAGA. Another noted that “I have many elements about me that speak to traditional maleness and what a ‘bro’ looks like, and I have to play those up to feel comfortable at the GIAC.” One SAGA leader observed that “most of the time I hear from queer athletes that they either have to joke about their sexuality to make it less threatening, downplay it, or hide it completely.” All three SAGA members I emailed reported that they very rarely see varsity men at SAGA activities or other queer-themed events on campus.
Microagressions are also a problem, according to one male athlete, though he noted the climate is improving. “[In the past, many team members were] at least slightly homophobic, certainly using the terms ‘gay,’ ‘soft’ (frequently synonymously with ‘gay’) was something I saw a lot,” he said. “I don’t feel that a student [back then] who was openly queer would have done well or been comfortable on the team, there would have been a lot of discomfort on both sides. I definitely see a change in the thought process when people say things now.”
Madison Skerritt ’17, this year’s Officer of Athletics, is working to create workshops dealing with microagressions.
Regarding the coaching staff, one athlete commented that “My coach is certainly well-intentioned but not the best…he’s certainly used some derogatory language about LGBT people and minorities…quite openly. I don’t think he thinks anything of it…nobody feels that they have the authority [to do something about it]…I’m not really sure how to fix that to be honest.” A SAGA member suggested that an increase in visibility could help. “I don’t know any queer male athletic coach, trainer, or administrator,” they said.
Other institutions of higher learning have been addressing queer inclusion in a variety of ways. On the student level, teams from schools such as Columbia University are making pledges with organizations like athleteally.org and youcanplayproject.org. Coaching staff, team members and captains, and administrators are following research-driven best practices laid out in Champions of Respect: Inclusion of LGBTQ Student-Athletes and Staff in NCAA Programs. It may be time for Haverford to build on its Athletics Department’s momentum on transgender student-athletes to make progress on widespread inclusion of LGBTQ athletes, particularly in male-dominated varsity spaces. Already triumphant among our peer-institutions in so many areas, Haverford athletes and coaches are faced with the opportunity to become leaders for LGBTQ inclusion in men’s NCAA sports as well. The rewards will be great: a wider audience of skilled athletes will be regarded as “cool” and likely to fit in with teams, and queer athletes will be able to compete with greater authenticity and community support.
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