Last week’s ESPN The Magazine article on negative recruiting in women’s basketball has gotten an interesting response from two gay men who are fans and friends of the Iowa State women’s basketball team and coach Bill Fennelly.
Matt Schuler and Robert Alden, a married couple in Iowa (where same-sex marriage is legal), believe that Fennelly is unfairly portrayed in the ESPN article. Their experience with Fennelly and the women’s program is that lesbian and gay fans and players are welcome and comfortable on the team. I have no firsthand experience with the Iowa State women’s program so, if what Matt and Robert say is true, I am happy to know this.
However, the quotes in the ESPN article attributed to some Iowa players and recruits and to Bill Fennelly himself are definitely open to other interpretations. These excerpts in particular are problematic:
During one teen's big moment, a heart-to-heart with Iowa State's Bill Fennelly, the decorated coach of 23 years sang an insistent refrain. He kept drilling that 'this would be a family,'" says the player, who asked not to be named. "'You should come here,' he said, 'because we're family-oriented.'"
To the recruit, those seemingly comforting words cloaked a deeper meaning. Two of the four schools she was considering were purported to employ lesbians on their staffs. Her stop in Ames, in fact, was on the heels of a trip to one of those allegedly "gay programs." There, coaches avoided discussing anyone's off-court lives. Iowa State, in contrast, pushed the personal hard. "They threw it out constantly," says the player, who became a Cyclone. "'Iowa has morals, and people who live here have values, wholesome values.'" The implication, to her and to another former Cyclone who confirmed her account, was that at other schools, "there's something going on you don't know."
The messaging continued after she joined the Iowa State squad and started to help recruit younger players. Coaches told all the Cyclones to emphasize their "environment" to any visiting recruits: married head coach, straight assistants, kids running underfoot. "Tell them we're family- oriented," the player recalls. "According to the coaches, it needed to be said."
Fennelly, on the other hand, says he pushes Iowa State's familial spirit because that's what he has to sell. It's all positive, and anyone who thinks otherwise is distorting what he and his school stand for. "I think what's happening," he says, "is, in an odd way, my staff is being penalized because they're married and have families." The coach, one of the few in the women's game willing to speak on the record about the subject, denies that he or any of his staff has ever used the term "wholesome" to recruit a player. But, Fennelly adds, "if using the word 'family' is viewed as negative recruiting, then we're guilty, because we say that. I don't think it's negative. Maybe I'm the only one in America who thinks that's ridiculous to say."
Negative recruiting is making disparaging comments about a rival school or team. Negative recruiting based on perceived sexual orientation is when coaches say things to recruits and their parents like, “You might not be aware of it but that other program you are interested in has ‘lifestyle issues’ you might not be comfortable with.” Or as Jennifer Harris’ parents reported that Rene Portland told them, “You can’t possibly be interested in that program and in Penn State. They date girls. Here we date boys.” The first is a little more subtle, but the message is the same: Lesbian coaches and athletes are a bad influence you want to avoid and you can do that by coming to my program.
Coaches’ use of code words like “family-oriented” to describe their own program can be an even more subtle use of homophobia in recruiting. It isn’t negative recruiting per se since the coach is not talking about another school’s team. However, when this tactic is employed intentionally as a way to signal to recruits and their parents that their daughter would be in a heterosexual and therefore “wholesome” lesbian-free environment it is unethical and discriminatory.
Does Bill Fennelly play up the heterosexual family status of the program’s coaches and the “family-oriented” atmosphere of his team as a way to intentionally send an anti-lesbian message to recruits and their parents? He claims he is just selling what he sees as his program’s strengths as any coach would do. According to Cyclone fans Matt and Robert Iowa State women’s basketball is a gay friendly program.
I hope they are right, but if the message that a coach is sending about his or her team cannot be differentiated from the messages sent by coaches who are intentionally selling their programs as heterosexual havens where young women would be safe from the evil lesbians in women’s basketball, how are we supposed to know that? Moreover, Fennelly’s apparent inability to see how his focus on family might be perceived as a problem reflects an incredible lack of understanding of homophobia in women’s sport and how he, as a heterosexual male coach, benefits from it, intentionally or not.
Part of the problem is that “family” is a term that has been hijacked by the Christian Right. When groups like “Focus on the Family” talk about family, we all know they have a very narrow definition that excludes the majority of familial groups that love and care for each other. If a coach wants to separate him or herself from the exclusionary and discriminatory code that “family-oriented” has become, let’s hear him or her do it. If they don’t and then make the preposterous claim of discrimination on the basis of having a heterosexual family and staff, how are we to trust that coach’s intentions?
Lesbian coaches have families. Single coaches, whether gay or straight, can create a “family-oriented” and “wholesome” team environment. A coach doesn’t need to be heterosexual and married to do that successfully (and lots of heterosexual married coaches can't do it worth a darn). The problem is that using your heterosexual married parental status as a recruiting tool in a culture where gay people and single people of any orientation are at a legal and social disadvantage is unfair. It is called heterosexual privilege. Claiming that being unable to use your heterosexual married status as a recruiting tool puts you at a disadvantage is insensitive at best and flat out homophobic at worst.
Here’s a suggestion: Coaches who want to talk about their teams as family certainly should be able to do that. It is a recruiting plus and a positive aspect of being on a team. Most of us who have sports experience know what it feels like to be part of a team we see as a second family. It’s a good thing. Thanks to the messaging monopoly of the anti-gay Christian Right, however, coaches who do not want to be seen as sending coded messages of heterosexuality and Christian “family values” need to send clear and intentional messages about what they mean by family: A group that embraces differences and uses that diversity as a team strength. A group in which teammates and coaches stand up for each other and treat each other with respect. A group in which everyone can count on receiving the support they need to be their best selves, on and off the basketball court. A group in which team members can bring all of who they are to the game in pursuit of excellence, regardless of their sexual orientation, religion, race, political views, and other ways we differ.
Now that’s a team I’d like to be part of. I’m betting it’s a team most young women, gay or straight, would like to be a part of too. Isn’t that a great positive recruiting message?