Openly gay athletes challenge NCAA's culture of silence (w/video)

Freedom High School senior Taylor Emery came out when she was in middle school. The Tulane commit says her future college is supportive of her being gay and she remains unfazed that some may not agree with her sexual orientation. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Freedom High School senior Taylor Emery came out when she was in middle school. The Tulane commit says her future college is supportive of her being gay and she remains unfazed that some may not agree with her sexual orientation. [LARA CERRI | Times]
Published March 27 2015
Updated March 28 2015

Taylor Emery was in seventh grade at Grayslake Middle School outside of Chicago when she first wondered about her sexuality. But as soon as the thoughts entered her mind, Emery immediately pushed them out.

All her life she had heard that being gay was a sin, that it was a choice, something that could be undone.

"You're a little 14-year-old thinking, 'Well, what's wrong with me then,' because I don't know why it's such a big deal that I feel like this," she said. "I can't control it."

When her basketball teammates would joke around with her about being gay, Emery would vehemently deny it. Then she just got tired of hiding.

When she was in eighth grade, she came out to her mentor. Now the Freedom High School senior proudly owns that part of her identity, one which will soon include college basketball player.

Emery, 17, who recently became Hillsborough County's all-time leading scorer in girls basketball, was highly recruited and signed in November to play at Tulane. She said one of the things that attracted her to the Green Wave was the comfort she felt there to be herself.

That kind of environment, though, isn't uniform when it comes to NCAA basketball.


Freedom High School senior Taylor Emery has been out for several years. The Tulane commit says her future college is supportive of her being gay and she remains unfazed that some may not agree with her sexual orientation.

Emery represents a generation that, she thinks, is more accepting of homosexuality, and thus people her age — specifically female athletes — are coming out at a faster rate.

But not all major Division I women's basketball programs have caught up with the times.

In December, two former Pepperdine play­ers sued the uni­versity and coach Ry­an Weis­en­berg, saying they were dis­crim­in­ated against be­cause of their sexu­al ori­ent­a­tion. The uni­versity has denied that claim. In the lawsuit, the women say the harassment from the coaching staff and trainers because of their relationship was so pervasive that it caused one of them to attempt suicide.

In 2007, then-Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland resigned after a 27-year career at the university in the midst of allegations she forced gay players off her team. She once told the Chicago Sun-Times: "I will not have it in my program."

Acceptance: fact or fiction?

Despite cases like the ones involving Penn State and Pepperdine, the general public perception seems to be that women's basketball is the most welcoming of sports for gay athletes. Those on the inside say that's not quite the reality.

"There's the stereotype that there's just so many lesbians playing sports, everybody just knows about it, everybody's out and everybody's happy with it and so we go merrily ever after," said Helen Carroll, sports project director with the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco.

"... Yes, there are lesbians in sports. But as far as, let's just take the top 25 women's basketball teams, as far as being out and living with that comfortably — Brittney Griner didn't get to do that at Baylor. And it probably cost them a national championship (in 2013) because she didn't get to be really who she was."

Griner, a three-time All-American who now plays in the WNBA for the Phoenix Mercury, talks about how her senior year at Baylor was "one big struggle" in her book, In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court. Baylor, a private Christian university, identifies homosexual acts as sexual misconduct.

"Even though I was open about being gay, I couldn't be open on Baylor's time, which is why I have a lot of mixed emotions about my four years there," she said in the book. "… Playing for a program and on a campus that denies a large part of my identity was a tough situation to navigate."

And it's acceptance and equality, not attention for athletes and coaches because they're gay, that advocates are striving to achieve.

"Among our top 25 teams, we don't get to see the superstar athletes be out, talk about it, talk about their girlfriend, just like a guy would talk about his girlfriend or his life," said Carroll, who coached at the University of North Carolina-Asheville and was a Division III athletic director. "The women who are lesbians don't get to do that."

Getty Images

Brittney Griner, left, a three-time All-American who now plays in the WNBA for the Phoenix Mercury, details in her book, In My Skin: My Life On and Off the Basketball Court, how her final year at Baylor University was "one big struggle." She is engaged to Glory Johnson, right, who plays for the Tulsa Shock.

Culture of silence

The average age for coming out has dropped in recent years, with many studies putting the age at 16 compared to the early 20s in the 1980s.

Professional athletes who may have been suppressed in college are becoming bolder and more open about their sexuality.

In August, Griner proposed to Glory Johnson, a former Tennessee star who currently plays for the Tulsa Shock. Indiana Fever coach Stephanie White is married to a woman and was public in her opposition to Indiana's anti-gay marriage legal issues several years ago. Seimone Augustus, a former WNBA MVP, is openly gay and filed a Supreme Court brief in 2013 supporting marriage equality.

College programs, however, are caught in the middle.

"We don't have one Division I women's basketball (head) coach in the nation who is out," Carroll said. "Not one. People may assume, 'Oh yeah, we know she's a lesbian, we know this, we know that.' But these coaches don't talk to anybody about it. They don't say, 'myself and my partner and my kids,' 'myself and my wife.' In the media guides, it's not there. There's silence."

The reasons for the silence are varied, ranging from conservative administrations to fears of alienating parents and boosters, leading to a financial hit.

Nevin Caple, a co-captain at Fairleigh Dickinson during her playing days from 1998-2002, said fear of guilt by association kept players from speaking out.

"When I was in high school and college women athletes and coaches had to ward off misogynist threats and negative associations that every woman who played sports was lesbian or bisexual, so actually identifying as such was widely not accepted," said Caple, co-founder of Br{ache the Silence, which aims to make athletic programs at every level more inclusive.

"It was taboo to discuss sexual orientation publicly, but privately we built a supportive community of our closest friends and teammates who would keep our secret and respect our privacy."

Today, that culture continues to be fostered because many of the coaches and administrators came of age when secrecy was the norm. Carroll said that even if head coaches will never say to a team or a player that they're required to keep their sexual orientation to themselves, they give the impression to younger assistants and players that the status quo should remain.

Negative recruiting

"Do you have any gay players on your team?"

"Are you sure you want to send your daughter to play for a gay coach?"

Thirty-three years after the NCAA sanctioned women's college basketball as a championship sport, those questions remain part of the recruiting process — from both parents and rival coaches trying to woo a prospective player.

Coaches at the high school and AAU levels say rival coaches push homophobic rhetoric against teams coached by unmarried females or women rumored to be lesbians.

"Once I was at Florida … I would hear the stories from different players that I hosted or teammates saying, 'Coaches are saying you can't go here because the players on the teams are lesbians' or 'The coach supports homosexuality' and things like that," said Florida assistant coach Murriel Page, a consensus first-team All-American who played for the Gators from 1994-98 and spent 11 seasons in the WNBA.

"At the time it was just like, 'Wow, what does that have to do with anything?' "

Getty Images

ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck, a former Purdue head coach who won a 1999 NCAA national championship, said using a coach or player's sexual orientation as a negative recruiting tool could come at a steep price these days. "I think that if it happened now, there would be a lawsuit on hand."

College coaches and officials say that practice has subsided considerably over the past two decades. The difference now? There are consequences, such as losing a coveted recruit or gaining a reputation for intolerance.

Caple said institutions are now realizing negative recruiting is "an attack against the entire institution" and are becoming more proactive in prevention.

And more players and coaches are willing to fight back.

"I think that if it happened now, there would be a lawsuit on hand," said Carolyn Peck, a former Florida and Purdue head coach who won a 1999 NCAA national championship and is a current analyst with ESPN. "I think that there are enough people now who will stand up against it. I liken it to the '60s where, for some people of the non-black race, it was not popular to support equal rights for blacks. And so a lot of people stayed quiet.

"Now, people feel strong enough and that there's a strong enough support for it that now it's the minority that want to discriminate as opposed to people who now understand that people as human beings all have the right to live their lives."

Bridging the gap

Lakewood High School girls basketball coach Necole Tunsil, who has sent her fair share of players to the next level, finds the NCAA's failure to help navigate a smoother path that allows more openness for gay student-athletes troubling.

"It's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about," said Tunsil, who played for current Rutgers coach Vivian Stringer at Iowa in the early 1990s.

But that appears to be changing.

Next weekend, in conjunction with the Women's Final Four in Tampa, three two-hour roundtable discussions will be held for basketball coaches within the Women's Basketball Coaches Association annual conference led by leaders in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) sports arena.

Br{ache the Silence recently partnered with the NCAA, Pat Griffin — a professor in the social justice education program at UMass Amherst — and the National Center for Lesbian Rights to organize a religion and LGBTQ inclusion think tank. About 25 leaders from public, faith-based and private secular institutions are involved, and the full think tank report will be released to every NCAA member institution later this year.

Getty Images

Nevin Caple 's organization, Br{ache the Silence, has partnered with the NCAA and other groups to help coaches and administrators promote inclusion for all student-athletes.

Caple's organization, the NCAA and several other groups recently launched, aimed at helping coaches and administrators find ways for student-athletes to participate without discrimination because of sexual orientation.

"It's no one's damn business who's sleeping with who," Tunsil said. "All that should matter is whether you can put the ball in the basket."

The NCAA's inclusion efforts aren't just aimed at its own sports.

When Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a bill into law that allows businesses to turn away LGBTQ customers, citing religious freedom, the Indianapolis-based NCAA publicly reacted. A statement Thursday from president Mark Emmert expressed concern "about how this legislation could affect our student-athletes and employees" and said the organization would take a hard look at whether to stage future events in the state, as well as hinting that the NCAA might move its headquarters.

A generation pushing for change

The next wave of athletes headed to college are part of a generation that documents practically every second of daily life online for the world to see. What happens when those athletes run head first into that lingering culture of silence?

Some coaches are concerned high school and college players who have been raised on social media may actually be hurting themselves — and their own cause — by being so forthright.

Tunsil said it's a difficult and confusing time for girls when they are in high school and have to think about putting everything out there with their sexual orientation.

"They're not looking at future consequences," she said. "Worry about your grades and playing well first. When it comes down to it, college basketball is a business. And having players out there with their homosexuality is not good for business. I've watched players lose scholarships because of it. … You can potentially risk a lot by coming out."

Peck believes few coaches would back away from a top 25-caliber player because of her willingness to discuss sexual orientation on social media. She does, however, believe that all student-athletes should consider dialing it down a notch when making private matters public.

But those worries don't faze Emery, even after a college coach told her she shouldn't talk so much about a relationship on Twitter.

"That right there gave me a flag. I can't be myself?" Emery said. "Right there that made me switch a decision in a heartbeat."

There is a new normal for teenagers like Emery who have grown up in a time when gay marriage is legal and there is an emphasis on teaching acceptance of LGBTQ individuals at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Emery said her future coaches and teammates at Tulane are aware she is gay, and she feels lucky that they support her 100 percent. As for the facing possible prejudices outside of Tulane?

"I have more of the mentality where, if someone doesn't like me, they don't like me. I just move on," she said.

Getty Images

Helen Carroll, sports project director with the National Center for Lesbian Rights in San Francisco, says the incoming generation of athletes are set to challenge the culture of silence that is pervasive in NCAA women's basketball. "They're on the cusp of this change that will happen, that's inevitable to happen."

Carroll believes Emery and her generation may be destined to become the group that challenges the status quo and eventually forces change.

"You do have a number of athletes with these top 25 teams that are very comfortable with their sexual orientation — whether they are lesbian, bi or straight," Carroll said. "They are friends with each other. They are ready to be able to talk about that in the news, be who they are, and that group is going to come forward. In fact many of them are, or are trying to, right now.

"They're on the cusp of this change that will happen, that's inevitable to happen."

Staff writers Bob Putnam and Matt Baker contributed to this report.