Jan 29, 2015
Out in the Open

As more gay and lesbian athletes feel comfortable revealing who they really are, athletic trainers need to understand the nuances of sexual orientation issues in sports medicine.

By Laura Ulrich

Laura Ulrich is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning. She can be reached at: [email protected]

The year was 2003, and Dartmouth was battling Syracuse for the NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse championship. The Big Green was down by one point when the team’s sophomore goalie, Andrew Goldstein, made a crucial save. Then, Goldstein did something no one expected: He saw an opening, ran the length of the field, and scored the almost unheard of goalie’s goal to tie the game.

It was a gutsy move, but many would argue it wasn’t the riskiest decision Goldstein made during his college career. He also informed his teammates that he’s gay.

For Goldstein, the decision to be open about his sexual orientation worked out well. His coaches and teammates were supportive, and Goldstein told ESPN being out made him a happier person and a better goalie. He graduated with All-America honors and went on to play professionally.

Not every coming-out story has such a happy ending, however–a fact that was illustrated in February when former NBA center John Amaechi announced he is gay and former all-star Tim Hardaway responded by telling a sports radio program, “I hate gay people.” NBA Commissioner David Stern scrambled to denounce Hardaway’s comments, but Amaechi called Hardaway’s statements honest and said they were echoed in a slew of threatening e-mails he received.

More than ever before, the issue of homophobia in athletics is being widely discussed. “There is a new generation of athletes who are increasingly open and feel entitled to be out and treated with respect,” says Pat Griffin, Director of It Takes A Team!, an educational campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in sports. “They often have the support of their parents, who advocate for their children’s rights and teach them to do the same. Straight athletes are also much more likely to be accepting of gay or lesbian teammates. Discrimination has become less acceptable.

“However,” continues Griffin, “every month, I still get letters from gay and lesbian high school and college athletes experiencing severe harassment or discrimination from their coaches or teammates.”

Should any of this concern athletic trainers? Jenny Moshak, MS, LAT, ATC, CSCS, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine for Women’s Athletics at the University of Tennessee, says yes. “It’s critical that athletic trainers understand this issue,” she explains, “because we are often the first line of defense for an athlete who is struggling with discrimination or issues related to sexual orientation.

“And if we want to take a leadership role in our athletic departments, we need to be aware of the complexities of a homophobic environment,” she continues. “There has been tremendous change with this issue, even within the last five years.”

TALKING ABOUT IT

Taking a leadership role on sexual orientation issues starts within your own athletic training room and with your own staff. “Homophobia needs to be addressed directly with your assistants, graduate assistants, and anyone else who works with you,” Moshak says. “Here at Tennessee, we talk about it during our athletic training staff retreat at the beginning of every year. My message is that in our department, every student-athlete will be served equally and not judged because of their talent, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or anything else.”

To illustrate her position, Moshak has created a “diversity window” covered with stickers on the glass separating her office from the athletic training room. “I have a rainbow sticker representing gay pride, and I have the symbols for male and female,” she says. “I also have stickers representing different religions, and a handicapped sticker. Without saying anything, I’m telling people what I stand for and that our athletic training room is a safe place.”

The next challenge is bringing that philosophy to life on a daily basis. Griffin suggests that all staff members first examine their own attitudes and assumptions. “Start by simply realizing not every athlete who comes into your athletic training room is straight,” Griffin says. “Realize that you don’t actually know. That shift in consciousness will change the language you use and your awareness of the language used around you.”

“A lot of banter goes back and forth in an athletic training room, and I’ll tease athletes about all kinds of things,” says Tim Neal, MS, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Syracuse University. “But there are certain topics I never joke about, and sexual orientation is one of them. I make sure nothing I say could ever be misconstrued.”

Neal is also quick to confront his staff if they use homophobic language. “A lot of times, they’ll say, ‘Oh, Tim, the athletes don’t mind. They know I’m just joking,'” he says. “But I tell them, ‘It’s not about your intention. It’s about how your words could be interpreted.’

“Language can get rough among athletes, and we’ve all heard it,” Neal continues. “But we shouldn’t tolerate it. Terms like ‘fag’ have no place in the athletic training room. I’ll walk right over to the offender and say, ‘That language is unacceptable here.'”

When possible, both Neal and Moshak use these situations as teachable moments. “Just the other day, I heard an athlete complain about something by saying, ‘That is so gay,'” Moshak says. “I said, ‘No, we won’t be using that term here.’ And then we had a discussion about why the term isn’t acceptable.”

“It helps to take the approach, ‘I’m giving you a heads-up, because your language could get you into trouble,'” Neal says. “I don’t preach. I tell them, ‘I know you may not have meant to be offensive, but you were.'”

It’s also important to pay attention to how other members of the sports medicine team handle the issue. “Make sure the strength and conditioning staff is aware of the expectations, too,” Moshak says. “The weightroom is a classic place for homophobic language and jokes to surface.”

BE A RESOURCE

Athletic trainers are also in a position to provide support and assistance to athletes struggling with coming out. “An athlete experiencing a problem related to sexual orientation will often turn to an athletic trainer first,” Griffin says. “You don’t need to be an expert in gay and lesbian issues to respond, but you do need to know how to listen sincerely, ask the right questions, and decide when further help or action is needed.”

It’s important to start with a basic understanding of the challenges faced by this group. “When an athlete is gay or lesbian, and many of the important people in their lives don’t know it, they feel they cannot be their whole selves,” Moshak says. “If you have to watch your pronouns and be careful how much you say about your personal life, it produces a tremendous amount of stress. It’s also lonely.

“This can lead to depression, anxiety, and feelings of low self-worth or inadequacy, which can predispose the athlete to injuries and illnesses and affect their performance,” she continues. “Often, an athlete who is struggling with sexual orientation issues will come to us with another problem, but if they feel safe, they’ll eventually tell us that this is the underlying issue.”

In Neal’s experience, the pain often comes from strained family relationships and a lack of support. “I’ve been in several situations where I’ve told an athlete I needed to contact their parents about something, and they’ve responded, ‘You can call them, but they won’t care. They know I’m gay and they don’t have much to do with me anymore.’ To me, that is one of the most difficult things to hear.”

When an athlete reveals to you that he is gay or she is lesbian, what should you do? “First of all, pat yourself on the back, because you’ve obviously communicated that you are a safe and caring person,” Griffin says. “Next, be sure to keep the information confidential. A gay or lesbian athlete needs to control who knows and how they find out.”

Veronica Ampey, MS, ATC, Head Athletic Trainer at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., believes an important early step is evaluating how comfortable you are providing help. “If you can be an unbiased listener, it’s perfectly appropriate to try to help,” Ampey says. “But if you’re not comfortable–and some athletic trainers are not–it’s best to refer the athlete to someone who can better assist them.”

If you do continue the dialogue, stay nonjudgmental and empathetic. “I don’t rush to tell the athlete what to do,” Moshak says. “I say, ‘I care about you and I care that you’re hurting.’ Sometimes that’s all they need. But I also make sure I have referral numbers ready. If I sense they need more than a listening ear, I offer to set them up with our counselor and I give them contact information for gay and lesbian resources on campus.”

Neal follows the same approach. “I have had several athletes come to me with this issue, and I focus on just listening at first,” he says. “I often find that advice isn’t what they need so much as someone who will listen and not judge. “But if I get the sense that they need more help, I will urge them to see a counselor,” Neal continues. “I offer the number of someone outside the athletic department so they’ll feel more comfortable. Sometimes they take me up on it, and other times they say, ‘Thanks, but I just needed to talk,’ or they’ll come back in a day or two and say, ‘You know, I think I would like you to make that appointment for me.'”

EDUCATION & THE LAW

Beyond the sports medicine department, head athletic trainers have an important role to play in helping their entire athletic department successfully navigate this issue. “We’re the department’s ground zero,” says Neal. “We’re at the epicenter of what happens, and we’re in a position to gauge the overall climate in athletics. If change is needed, we can help get it started.”

One way is to initiate more education in the department about homophobia. “There are two steps,” says Neal. “First, you need to have a good ongoing relationship with the administration, and that starts long before a problem comes up. Second, you need to do your research. Be prepared to explain exactly why you think additional education is necessary and present some options for providing it.”

Griffin says a few elements can make an educational program on gay and lesbian issues successful for both student-athletes and staff. “Most importantly, you want to create an atmosphere that joins people, not one that lectures them,” she says. “When I’m working with an athletic department, I focus on the question, ‘What creates a winning atmosphere on a team?’ The answer is, a climate where everybody can bring their best to the team and focus on winning without distractions. Well, that only happens when no one has to keep secrets about themselves in order to be valued, or because they fear harassment or discrimination.

“In educating student-athletes, a good strategy is to work extensively with team leaders and the student-athlete advisory council,” Griffin continues. “What they say and do really has an influence. With staff, the key time is when someone new comes on board. Make sure their orientation includes this issue. And remember, education for both athletes and staff needs to be an ongoing effort, not just a one-time seminar or talk.”

Along with setting up educational opportunities, update yourself on anti-discrimination laws related to sexual orientation. A growing number of states have passed such laws, and in states that haven’t, courts have held that two federal statutes apply–the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act.

Understanding your own institution’s anti-discrimination policies is equally important. “Many universities have written policies prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and many athletic departments have a code of ethics that addresses it,” says Helen Carroll, Sports Project Coordinator for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), an organization that offers legal counsel to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. “That is the first place we look when we receive a call about discrimination.”

In fact, when former Pennsylvania State University basketball player Jennifer Harris alleged that Head Coach Rene Portland discriminated against her based on perceived sexual orientation last year, it was Penn State’s own policy that allowed the NCLR to go to bat for Harris. The university has a policy ensuring students protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation, so the NCLR’s first step was to write a letter to Penn State’s president and athletic director. In February, Harris and the university reached an out-of-court settlement.

“A lot of times these policies exist, but the athletics staff isn’t aware of them,” Carroll says. “If I were a head athletic trainer, I would locate the laws that apply in my state and the rules at my institution and assemble them into a notebook.”

This information will be critical if a student-athlete comes to you with an allegation against a coach or staff member–a matter that should be taken very seriously. “Sometimes an athletic trainer will offer advice, like, ‘Well, just ignore it and maybe it will get better,'” says Carroll. “That’s a mistake, because this is a serious legal issue that needs immediate attention. A better first step is to offer a referral to a counselor outside the athletic department who can help the athlete figure out what to do.

“There are many proactive steps that can be taken to resolve a problem without ending up in court,” she adds. “Referring an athlete to the NCLR is another good step, because we can help them find those solutions.”

SPEAKING UP

What if you see discrimination taking place, even though an athlete hasn’t talked to you about it? When it involves a coach, your status is important. “I think it depends on the relationship the athletic trainer has with the coach,” Moshak says. “I’ve seen situations where I knew coaches were limiting the playing time of an athlete they thought was gay or lesbian, or using offensive language during practices. It has worked for me to talk with the coach. But I’ve been here for a long time, and an athletic trainer who is relatively new won’t to want to approach a coach who’s been there for many winning seasons. In that case, it’s better to find a different way.”

“Another route is to talk to a coach you have a good relationship with and ask them to bring the matter up with the offending coach,” says Griffin. “Taking the issue to an administrator is another alternative. With administrators, it helps to point out the legal liability. When you say, ‘We don’t want a lawsuit about this,’ their antennae go up.”

And sometimes, you may just need to take a stand. “A lot of times, it comes down to one question,” Moshak says. “If the climate in your department isn’t going in the right direction, are you brave enough to say something, whether people like it or not?”

Helping your department successfully navigate this issue could be one of the biggest contributions you make, according to Carroll. “For athletic departments that handle this issue well, diversity can bring a richness that makes teams stronger,” she says. “Those that don’t handle it well open the door to painful experiences for athletes, legal liability, and a weakening of the department. It can be very positive or very negative, and there isn’t a whole lot in between.”

Sidebar: DISCRIMINATION ON THE JOB

For some athletic trainers, issues related to sexual orientation take a more personal turn. When athletic trainers who are themselves gay or lesbian encounter discrimination and homophobia, staying closeted on the job can seem like their only choice.

That was the case for Lindsy McLean, ATC, who began his career in 1956 at Vanderbilt University and retired more than four decades later as the Head Athletic Trainer for the San Francisco 49ers. One of the most accomplished professionals in the field’s history, McLean claims a long list of Athletic Trainer of the Year awards and a spot in the NATA Hall of Fame. Yet as a gay man, throughout his career, he kept his personal life a secret from his staff and the players he served.

“Athletics is one of the last places where homophobia is the norm,” McLean says. “I felt like my job would have been in jeopardy if I’d come out. I didn’t feel I had a choice, but having to hide a very important aspect of yourself from other people is not a healthy way to live.”

After his retirement in 2004, McLean made the decision to come out publicly. “Once I came out, a lot of other gay and lesbian athletic trainers contacted me to tell me their stories,” he says. “People came up to me at the NATA convention and told me, ‘I wish I could come out, too, but I don’t think it would work.'”

If you face harassment on the job as a gay or lesbian athletic trainer, McLean suggests you confront it. “Early in my career, I didn’t confront it enough,” he says. “Comments or jokes in the athletic training room would make me feel terribly uncomfortable, but I’d just smile like I thought it was funny, too. Later on, I started taking those athletes who were making comments aside and telling them I didn’t appreciate it and I wanted it to stop. The surprising thing is, confronting them stopped it in its tracks. My advice is, don’t let it happen more than once before you confront it.”

“If athletes are creating a hostile work environment for gay or lesbian athletic trainers, they do not have to put up with it,” says Helen Carroll, Sports Project Coordinator for the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR), an organization that offers legal counsel to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered individuals. “Athletic trainers have the same legal protections afforded to athletes. Exercising your rights doesn’t necessarily mean announcing your sexual orientation, and you don’t even have to name individual athletes if you aren’t comfortable doing so. You can simply go to your athletic director and tell him or her that a certain team is behaving inappropriately around this issue, and point out that laws and university policies prohibit that type of behavior.

“If you go to the athletic director, he or she is responsible for fixing the problem,” Carroll continues. “Usually that means talking to the coach and addressing the entire team about the issue, and your name does not need to be used. Nine times out of 10, that will stop the behavior.”

Another approach, according to Pat Griffin, Director of It Takes A Team!, an educational campaign for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in sports, is to ask one of your peers for help. “If another person on staff knows you are gay or lesbian and is supportive, consider asking them to speak up when harassment occurs,” she says. “Tell them, ‘I’m getting very frustrated with some of the things being said in here, but I’m not comfortable going to the administration. Would you be willing to?’ It takes a lot of courage, but the right person will feel good that you’ve asked.”

Coming out on the job is the next step for some athletic trainers. “If you want to be out on the job, my advice is to be the most professional athletic trainer you can be,” McLean says. “We’re in a field where we are taking care of young athletes, putting our hands on them to treat them. Because of homophobia, we need to be extra careful to always act with absolute integrity.”

Griffin suggests taking a casual approach to communicating the issue. “I’ve found that the most effective way to let people know I’m a lesbian is by gradually making it a normal part of conversation,” she says. “For example, you could say, ‘My girlfriend and I went to see this great movie last night. Have you seen it?’ That lets it sink in without making it a big moment. People can let it pass over without comment, they can mull it over later, or they can respond right then. In my opinion, the more matter-of-fact you are, the better.”

“Coming out on the job is a very personal decision,” McLean adds. “Every setting is different, and the openness on your campus and in your department will dictate how difficult or easy it will be. Based on my experience, I believe the most important thing is simply to start by not being ashamed of who you are, whether you decide to come out or not.”

Sidebar: SURVEYING THE CLIMATE

Next year, athletic trainers will have access to a lot more information about how gay and lesbian student-athletes feel they are being treated in college athletic departments nationwide. The NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports (CSMAS) is currently conducting a survey of the association’s entire membership on a variety of climate topics, including racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Campuses received their surveys in February and are administering them now. Twenty thousand student-athletes are expected to respond, and results will be available by December.

“We hope to get a sense of what athletes perceive as the problems in this area that need to be addressed,” says Mary Wilfert, NCAA Staff Liaison to the CSMAS. “From there, we’ll be able to start figuring out how to work toward change.


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