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The Times They Are A-Changin' for LGBTQ People in Sports

Regardless of the road blocks that a fearful older generation present, change will come. As the younger generation of women and men take leadership roles in sports, they will carry with them the values of inclusion and respect that drive their activism.
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"Come gather 'round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown
And accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you is worth savin' then you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone for the times they are a-changin'."

The lyrics from Bob Dylan's classic 1960s social change anthem capture the generational shifts that are now underway in sports. As younger generations of LGBTQ and ally athletes and coaches express greater openness and desire for activism on LGBTQ issues, they are pushing back on the norms of silence, exclusion and secrecy long accepted by their elders. This is clear in the reactions of some NFL team owners, senior executives and scouts to the coming out of NFL prospect Michael Sam. In an anonymous interview with Sports Illustrated's Peter King, these NFL leaders betrayed a 1950s era mentality in reacting to the possibility of a gay man on an NFL team. To these anonymous cowards a gay man in an NFL locker room would be a "distraction" and a disruption in a "man's man" game. Having a gay man on the team would cause a "chemical imbalance" in the locker room. They conclude that maybe in 10 years players could accept a gay teammate, but not now. Most telling of all, these NFL leaders place all the blame on the players rather than "man up" to their own fears and prejudices. Meanwhile most reactions from the players themselves were overwhelmingly accepting, if not welcoming.

While speaking to college athletic departments about LGBTQ inclusion, we notice this generation gap at school after school. LGBTQ student athletes are coming out at an accelerated pace. Straight student-athletes are speaking up more and more for LGBTQ inclusion in sports. While their coaches and administrators express increased acceptance of LGBTQ teammates and colleagues, they are less comfortable with the topic and have more questions about their roles in creating respectful and inclusive climates for athletes of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

On one hand, this generation gap bodes well for the future of sports. As the younger generation of athletes and coaches move into leadership positions in sports, their "If You Can Play, You Can Play" perspective will go with them. On the other hand, the process of transitioning to that future is hampered by the reality that league executives, head coaches and athletic administrators of today have the power to enforce norms of silence, secrecy or exclusion from the past on the potential sports leaders of tomorrow. The reality is that "You Can Play Only if An NFL Team Drafts You." "You Only Get to Play, If Your Coach Says You Can Play" and "You Only Get to Coach, If Your Athletic Director Says You Can Coach." The challenge is to help older generations of coaches and athletic administrators either catch up to the younger generation or get out of their way.

This generation gap is true for women's and men's sports. One of the great misunderstandings about women's sports is the belief that homophobia is no longer a problem. Even though we can celebrate a greater number of publicly out lesbian and bisexual women athletes at both the professional and college levels, it is a myth that women's sports teams are discrimination-free lesbian paradises where lesbian and bisexual coaches and athletes are universally out and accepted. Anti-LGBT discrimination and prejudice is alive and well in women's sports and continue to constrain and dominate the actions of women coaches, athletic administrators and athletes. It just plays out a little differently in women's sports than it does in men's sports.

In college sports, the current generation of senior women coaches and administrators of all sexual orientations perpetuate a culture of the closet in which silence and secrecy are the predominate strategies for addressing LGBTQ issues. Historically, women in sports, regardless of their sexual orientations, have struggled to ward off associations with and assumptions about being lesbians. This association posed a threat to women's sports and was an effective means to intimidate and silence women and to force them into an apologetic stance about their athleticism, their femininity and their sexuality. In contrast, a gay man in sport, especially the macho team sports, is still perceived as an anomaly. He does not threaten the reputation of all male athletes by coming out.

The historic association of women's sports with lesbians silences women in sport out of fear of limiting their own professional goals as well as damaging the public appeal of women's sports in general. This climate of secrecy and silence accounts for the fact that the number of publicly out lesbian college coaches and publicly visible straight women allies in college sports barely reaches double digits. This is a shocking number to those who believe that anti-LGBT prejudice and discrimination in women's sports is a thing of the past.

We know that the numbers of women coaching women's sports team is dwindling (only 40 percent of women's teams are coached by women). Many factors affect this depressing statistic, but fear of anti-LGBT discrimination and adopting the culture of the closet as the only way to survive it discourage many young women athletes from pursuing a coaching career. Young lesbians leave the coaching profession or avoid it from the beginning because they refuse to work under the shroud of silence and secrecy their mentors and role models accepted as the only way to survive.

In women's sports negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation has long been a feared and unethical, but often effective tactic used to sway the decisions of high school recruits and their parents about what schools to choose ("You may not be comfortable with the 'lifestyle' issues in that other school's basketball program"). Kim Mulkey, the Baylor women's basketball coach, asked Brittney Griner not to come out while at Baylor fearing the negative impact of having an out lesbian player might have on the team's reputation and therefore, her ability to recruit the best players and win. But is negative recruiting an effective tactic in this day of rapidly changing social perspectives on LGBTQ equality? Could it be that times have changed so that most parents and recruits in 2014 are offended by negative recruiting itself? Could it be that what lingers is the fear of negative recruiting that silences LGBT and heterosexual women coaches? If so, should young athletes and coaches be held hostage to the fears of their elders about the assumed negative consequences of having openly lesbian or bisexual coaches and athletes on a team?

"Come mothers and fathers throughout the land
And don't criticize what you can't understand
Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
Your old road is Rapidly agin'
Please get out of the new one
If you can't lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin'."

Enter the younger generation of women athletes who, like Michael Sam, are unwilling to accept condemnation and exclusion of LGBT people in sports. Young lesbian athletes like Toni Kokenis, Brittney Griner and Layshia Clarendon are unwilling to accept the culture of the closet that their LGBT coaches and mentors accepted as the only way to survive and their straight ally teammates, like Cal's Mikalya Lyles, are unwilling to collude in the silence. We are watching a transition in sports from the culture of the closet to one in which young women athletes embrace openness and activism to, not only live their truth, but also to speak out to make sports more inclusive and welcoming for the athletes and coaches who follow them.

The challenge is that the old guard holds the power and their internalized homophobia and fear of change are holding back progress. When head coaches of any sexual orientation forbid or discourage their lesbian assistant coaches and lesbian athletes from coming out or speaking out, they have the power, in form of control over playing time, job recommendations or hiring, to silence these young women. When an athletic director forbids or discourages a young lesbian coach from being open, the culture of the closet is extended to include the younger generation whether they want it to or not. Sometimes a women's team knows their coach is a closeted lesbian and her silence and secrecy discourage openness and ensnare the entire team in conspiracy of silence against their will. Athletic directors and coaches who allow their fear of the activism and openness of younger coaches and athletes stand in the way of change and progress.

At the same time we must understand that older women coaches and athletes needed the culture of the closet to survive. Discrimination against lesbians (or those assumed to be) was real. Some coaches and athletes still need the culture of the closet because they coach and compete in hostile athletic departments and communities where being an open lesbian, bisexual or an outspoken ally still provoke discrimination and prejudice. Thankfully, that is not true for many other coaches. They have the support of their communities, institutional policies, legal protections and the backing of their athletic departments, team members and their families. For these coaches who could be open without fear of discrimination, the cramped quarters of the closet have become comfortable and difficult to renounce. Even if the assumed protections of the closet are largely illusory, its familiarity is seductive and the fear of living openly is overwhelming. Perhaps the most painful realization is that playing for a closeted lesbian head coach who, by example or directive, discourages assistant coaches and athletes from living their truths might be as spirit-killing as playing for a coach who is actively hostile to the inclusion of LGBTQ people in sports.

The challenge is in how we manage this transition from fear, silence and secrecy to openness, pride and activism. How do we support the old guard to loosen their grip and enable the younger generation of LGBTQ and ally coaches and athletes to change sports? If closeted lesbian coaches and athletes are too deeply entrenched in their own fear and silence to break out of their closets, can they at least step back to let the younger generation escape the silence, shame and secrecy? Can straight women coaches and athletes who fear or resent association with lesbians step back and acknowledge that younger straight women are ready for change?

Regardless of the road blocks that a fearful older generation present, change will come. As the younger generation of women and men take leadership roles in sports, they will carry with them the values of inclusion and respect that drive their activism. It is difficult, however, to patiently wait for this evolution when young athletes and assistant coaches today are stifled by their elders' fear. Waiting for a changing of the guard is difficult when young LGBT athletes and assistant coaches today are deprived of their athletic opportunities by the fear or bigotry of their elders.

"The line it is drawn, the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin'."

Change will come. The question is will the older generation be part of moving into a sports future that embraces the full spectrum of diversity that young athletes represent. Or will they be dragged into this future by the enthusiasm and commitment of young athletes and coaches who envision a sports future in which LGBT people live their lives openly and true to themselves.