When “family” means “straight” – a look at women’s college basketball recruiting


When Baylor won the women’s college basketball championship in 2005, one of the stars was sophomore Emily Niemann.

The year before, she set the single-season three-point record with 75. Baylor coach Kim Mulkey had watched Niemann since high school and was thrilled with not only her playing, but her work ethic. Emily had a bright future ahead – and she loved basketball.

She also loved her Lord. She had attended a Christian high school and prayed with her coaches there about where to go to college. In Waco, Emily joined Antioch Community Church, a charismatic evangelical church that may be familiar because it sponsored the two women missionaries who were arrested and imprisoned in Afghanistan in 2001.

But Emily had a secret, one that she dealt with pretty much the same way I did when I was at Baylor and immersed in the charismatic evangelical church that started Antioch years later. Emily was gay. And she was scared.

This week, ESPN Magazine posted an article from its February issue about homophobia and women’s basketball recruiting. The authors called Emily, now out and living happily with wife Ashley whom she met at Baylor, for comment. What she said reflects the experience of many recruits.

Emily remembers that when the dozens of recruiters came to her Houston home in 2002, they had to pass a test. “On home visits,” she says, “my dad was assigned the question: ‘Do you have a bunch of lesbians on your team?'” Her youth coaches aided the process with their own inquiries about a program’s “healthy climate” and the like. “You know,” she says, “the code words.” And since Emily believed her same-sex attraction was wrong, those words were important. She needed a place she could hide and, she hoped, change.

All of us who played team sports are familiar with the concept of the team being “family.” But in women’s basketball recruiting, the term is used more pointedly. Coaches talk about “family values” or describe their program as “family-oriented” and “family focused.” The code words act as a subtle weapon against programs led by unmarried women coaches.

Photo by Jorg Klaus, ESPN The Magazine

Heather Barber, a University of New Hampshire sports psychology professor, told ESPN, “When coaches say things like, ‘We’re a family,’ one aspect of that is ‘We support each other,’ and that’s good. But it crosses the line when programs talk about ‘family values,’ then put a definition on what families look like. That becomes code for ‘We reflect a straight program.'”

UConn coach Geno Auriemma believes such thinking is an overreaction. If people are rallying to tone down the focus on family, “everyone in this business ought to shoot themselves in the head. If that’s the direction people want to take it, they’ve lost their grip on reality.”

Geno defends the language, of course, because he uses it. In fact, a recurring rumor about the reason for Pat Summitt ending her Lady Vols’ annual games against UConn is that the Huskies used antigay recruiting tactics against Tennessee. Geno calls the rumor crazy; Pat declined to comment.

Yet, during ESPN Magazine’s seven-month study of women’s basketball recruiting, 55% of the more than 50 current and former college players surveyed reported that sexual orientation is an underlying topic of conversation with recruiters.

Our gaydar doesn’t have to be very sensitive to know that lots of lesbians play college ball, even on “family-oriented” teams. But homophobic recruiting sends those players deep into the closet while squelching the opportunity for lesbian coaches to provide positive role models for gay players. It also creates an environment of fear for all female coaches, gay or straight — and may be a big reason that we don’t have more women coaches. And it’s for sure why we have precisely one openly lesbian Division 1 basketball coach.

The ESPN article is fascinating and insightful; give it a read and tell us what you think. Are we overreacting to equate family values messages with homophobia? What is your experience of how sexual orientation affects recruiting?

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