Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is no longer the law that governs the U.S. Military, but, according to a thoughtful piece by ESPN.com’s Mechelle Voepel, it’s still the rule for reporters when dealing with college coaches. The article questions at what point should journalists stop living by this rule and instead ask more direct questions to coaches about their personal lives.
The article talks about the coaches who have long been assumed to be lesbians but who reporters would never ask about their personal lives because as Voepel describes there was an unspoken code that “sports writers not only shouldn’t “out” athletes or coaches but should essentially avoid questions about their personal lives if we thought they might be gay.” Of course, this can be just as telling to those of us who assume that any coach who doesn’t speak about her personal life is a good bet to be gay.
This idea that if you are presumed gay that reporters should not even ask about your personal life is particularly interesting in light of a few athletes, including Megan Rapinoe, who have said they always lived openly but didn’t come out sooner simply because no one bothered to ask them if they were gay. As more athletes come out, and come out early in their careers as Brittney Griner did, is it time to reassess how the media covers sports? Should reporters start asking about an athlete or a coach’s personal life or is it still unacceptable to ask a question that requires a person either to come out or to be dishonest?
While the younger generation of players seem to embrace coming out college coaches have not adjusted their thinking. Media guides are filled with vague descriptions of coaches as “living near campus with her two dogs and a cat” with no mention that the person who takes care of those pets while she’s on the road with the team happens to be her wife. It’s unclear whether that thinking sticks around because the coaches have been hiding so long they aren’t sure how to change the habit or because coaching as a profession is not one filled with job security for any but the very best. Voepel describes her experience of speaking with coaches about homosexuality “You start to get into a dialogue with somebody, you see the fear, you can see the walls go up, and you usually don’t continue it. The word ‘lesbian’ itself makes alarm bells go off.”
For reporters who count on having a good relationship with coaches in order to get the best information so that they can meet deadlines and give readers insight into coaches and teams it must be frightening to worry about alienating a coach by broaching a topic that might have them scurrying for the exits. Pissing off a coach by asking her about her personal life or by bringing up the topic of lesbians in general isn’t going to gain a reporter access to a team or a coach so it makes sense to shy away from the topic altogether. But, as Voepel points out, when coaches hide their personal lives it gives the impression that there is something worth hiding, that there is something about which they should be ashamed, or that the fact that a coach is a lesbian is something that could be damaging to her in her career.
Is the media then, by not asking the questions, complicit in perpetuating the notion that being a lesbian coach is something a coach should hide? If coaches are living their lives mostly in the open, with the closet door open, it seems insane to me that we currently have one out lesbian basketball coach, Sherri Murrell at Portland State, in the country. To make coaches comfortable coming out to the media it may take work from administrators, straight coaches, and even players to help make it happen. Administrators need to make sure that their coaches understand that the only thing that matters is the team’s performance. Other coaches need to be allies by giving support and by making sure that a coach’s sexual orientation is never a topic on the recruiting trail. Players, and their parents, need to support their coaches regardless of sexual orientation and be ready to report any coach who tries to use another coach’s sexuality as a recruiting tool.
Being a coach is a tough job and one that must feel lonely if you are constantly trying to hide a piece of who you are from those around you. No coach should feel like she can’t tell her friends on Facebook that she’s gotten married to her girlfriend because doing so would announce her sexuality to the world. When acceptance for gay players, especially in women’s sports, is at an all-time high it seems very strange to have such a dearth of out college coaches. Perhaps as younger coaches rise through the ranks they, like the younger players, will come out in greater numbers and it change the coaching ranks from the bottom. It’s hard to know what role the media should play in helping the coaches come out but I think it’s an important first step that journalists, especially well- respected ones like Voepel, are starting to question the status quo.
What do you think, should the media end it’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and ask gay coaches about their personal lives? What do you think we can do to help more coaches come out?