It's 2016, And Coaches Still Don't Feel Comfortable Coming Out in Women's College Basketball

Out of the 349 Division I women's basketball programs in the United States, University of San Francisco's Jennifer Azzi is the only openly gay head coach among them.

by Lyndsey D'Arcangelo
Apr 25 2016, 3:10pm

Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

There are 349 Division I women's basketball programs in the United States, and only one out lesbian coach is currently at the helm among them.

University of San Francisco head coach Jennifer Azzi, a Stanford alum and former WNBA player, came out last month while introducing Golden State Warriors president Rick Welts at the Anti-Defamation League's Torch of Liberty Award ceremony in San Francisco.

"I, too, lived a long time not being 100 percent honest," Azzi said, according to the San Jose Mercury News. "The don't-ask-don't-tell kind of thing. And it's so stupid. I don't know why we do that."

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It's 2016. Gay marriage is the law of the land. LGBT characters have prominent roles in television and movies. Professional sports organizations, including the WNBA, have welcomed diversity with open arms. There are more out athletes now than ever before. Yet women's college basketball seems to lag behind, with recent lawsuits underlining how the sport's homophobic culture is still a breeding ground for discriminatory recruiting, hiring, and firing practices against gay players and coaches.

Before Azzi's announcement, the last openly gay head coach in women's college basketball was Sherri Murrell, who led Portland State from 2007 to 2015, and came out publicly in 2009. For a few years, she, like Azzi (who did not respond to VICE Sport's request for comment), was the only one. Many others have been reluctant to come forward.

"The first time I came out [professionally] was in 2004," Sandra Botham said over the phone. Botham was the head coach of the Wisconsin-Milwaukee women's basketball team from 1995 to 2012, and is now the director of athletics and operations at Madison West High School. "Some friends of mine asked me to speak at an LGBT fundraising event and I said yes. It was all about coming out and being who you are, and I got onstage and the moment moved me. I said, 'I'm an out lesbian Division I coach.' I didn't realize what a big deal that was."

As word spread, Botham said, people from different publications and organizations began to contact her. She became nervous and retreated instead of talking about it openly. Though Botham said she never personally experienced discrimination at the hands of her athletic director, staff members, or other coaches, she heard stories about "negative recruiting"—when coaches try to dissuade top players (and their parents) from rival programs by implying the coaches or players there are gay—and wondered if anyone would use them against her.

"As much as I think that [being gay] is accepted more and more now, I still think that there are women in the shadows in areas of the country that aren't as open and as accepting," Botham said. "So I do think it's important for role models like Azzi to step forward and say, 'Yeah, I am too.'"

Brittney Griner has said that she was told to hide her sexuality while playing for Baylor. Photo by Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The homophobic culture surrounding women's college basketball is a frustrating one. If you look at the WNBA, there are many out players, including Brittney Griner, Jacki Gemelos, Seimone Augustus, Angel McCoughtry, Layshia Clarendon, and more. Last year, the WNBA started a marketing campaign to specifically target its large LGBT fan base. This kind of acceptance has yet to find a foothold at the collegiate level.

Kelly Cruttenden, the associate director of compliance at the University at Buffalo, said she has worked alongside and interacted with a lot of women's basketball coaches over her 16-year tenure, and many of them were not comfortable being out.

"I think women's basketball is just more in the spotlight," Cruttenden said via e-mail. "It's a revenue-generating sport with much more media attention and publicity than other women's sports."

With that attention and money comes the pressure to win, build programs, and attract top players. If coaches can't get the players they need because of negative recruiting, their jobs are at risk. "Gay and lesbian coaches fear not being able to recruit top talent," said Nevin Caple, a former college basketball player, said in an e-mail. She is co-founder and executive director of Br{ache the Silence, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ inclusion in women's sports. "If they can't recruit, they can't win. If they can't win, they get fired. If they get fired, they won't get hired somewhere else."

And in some instances, gay and lesbian coaches face blatant discrimination.

Annette Wiles is currently suing the University of Minnesota-Duluth, where she used to coach, for hostile and discriminatory treatment after she appeared as the keynote speaker for National Coming Out Day, a well-known LGBT event on campus. (She is joined in the suit by Shannon Miller, a former ice hockey coach, and Jen Banford, who was director of the women's ice hockey operations and head coach of the women's softball team.) In the lawsuit, Wiles claims she was purposely left out of athletic department meetings, the budget for her women's basketball program kept getting smaller, and she was forced to resign in June 2015. The lawsuit claims that UMD violated Title IX, Title VII, the Equal Pay Act, the Minnesota Human Rights Act, Minnesota's Equal Pay for Equal Work law, and Minnesota's Whistleblower Act.

This case and others like it are exactly why LGBT coaches may need additional support from the NCAA. Amy Wilson, director of the office of inclusion, said while the NCAA has LGBT resources and policy publications available on its website, they are also focused on addressing the issue of support by creating partnerships with outside organizations for insight and guidance.

"The office of inclusion is very receptive to learning more about [LGBT] coaches' challenges," she said. "We are certainly willing to share resources, talk about best practices, explain policies and do whatever we can to help because we want an inclusive environment for everyone in women's basketball. That's why [we] recognize the value of partnerships with outside affiliate groups, like the Women's Basketball Coaches Association."

The Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), draws members from all levels of the game.

"We are focused on the culture and community, and on welcoming all sorts of diversity," said Danielle Donehew, executive director of the WBCA. "Specifically, if there is a coach that needs help we have a number of different support mechanisms through our different partnerships. We have a partnership with Coaches Inc., if a coach needs legal advice. We want all of our coaches to be successful and comfortable and have the support they need in any situation that they face."

Donehew also elaborated on the steps the WBCA is taking in order to address the issue of diversity. "Our organization seeks to foster that inclusiveness by offering learning labs and roundtables at our conventions, that are supportive and focus on topics of interest to our LGBT members, and all of members."

But Caple firmly believes that the WBCA, which has partnered with Br{ache the Silence, needs to do more to create a safer and more inclusive culture in the sport.

"There are specific challenges affecting LGBT coaches in women's basketball, stemming from a history of oppression, misogyny and homophobia," she said. "Unlike straight colleagues, gay and lesbian coaches have limited mobility finding job opportunities, and are often forced to choose between basketball and their families. Many leave the profession altogether.

"There is a generational gap between closeted veteran head coaches and WBCA leadership with the power, and out younger assistant and associate head coaches who are midcareer, and love basketball and their families unapologetically. Younger coaches are desperately seeking veteran mentors with similar values to help navigate their careers."

Azzi coaching her team in the West Coast Conference tournament. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

That's where Jennifer Azzi comes in. Caple said the WBCA could use Azzi's coming out to publicly acknowledge the courage and importance of having gay and lesbian coaches as role models in women's basketball.

"Until WBCA leadership is intentional and unapologetic about creating opportunities and safe spaces for LGBT member coaches to thrive, coaches will continue to feel invisible, and their experiences, lives and legacies marginalized and labeled as other," she said.

Donehew insists that they are headed in the right direction.

"The women's basketball community is beautifully diverse," she said. "We want to celebrate that diversity. We want everyone to feel welcome and accepted. And we will continue working on helping women's basketball evolve."

In the meantime, Azzi sits alone at the table, as college basketball's only out lesbian coach. Maybe someday soon, others will pull up a chair and sit beside her.