Lea Robinson

(WOMENSENEWS)–Lea Robinson remembers the first time she heard the question. As a young assistant coach for a women’s college basketball team, she was in the home of a high school student-athlete she was recruiting when a parent asked if there were any lesbians on her team or staff.

"I wasn’t out at the time," Robinson said. "So I think I responded to it by saying, ‘That’s not something we’re concerned with. Everyone’s welcome.’"

The recruit chose not to go to Robinson’s school.

It was the first hint that Robinson’s own sexual orientation or that of team members might be used against her, but it wasn’t the last. The question would come up again.

"After I had that experience, I started hearing that a lot more," said Robinson, who worked as an assistant and head coach at several colleges from 1995 through 2006. "If someone on your team is a lesbian, or someone on your staff is a lesbian or if you’re a lesbian, other coaches will use that against you."

It’s called "negative recruiting," a catch-all term that refers to coaches who criticize other programs while recruiting to try to dissuade student-athletes from playing elsewhere. Negative recruiting can include any kind of criticism leveled against a competing school, from panning its academics to knocking its athletic facilities or team record.

But in women’s sports, negative recruiting is often focused on an opposing coach’s sexual orientation, whether perceived or real.

"If you go to any group of coaches, women coaches, and just talk to them, they all have stories," said Pat Griffin, author of "Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sport," published in 1998.

"They all know of coaches it’s been used against," Griffin said. "They’ve been targeted themselves."

Including Robinson, who was an assistant coach at several schools, from Southern Illinois University to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, before becoming a head coach. She led the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, Mass., from 2004-05 and was head coach at Newbury College in Boston in 2005-06 before leaving the field.

Difficult Issue to Pin Down

Although she was closeted early in her career, she eventually came out. Robinson said it was difficult to know who might have used negative recruiting tactics against her. After all, recruits did not have to tell her their reasons for choosing another school.

But she knew it was an issue because of those questions from parents.

Griffin has talked to many coaches about negative recruiting. But she said there is no way to know how prevalent the practice is because there are no studies to quantify the frequency.

"I don’t think those data exist," she said. "And part of the reason it doesn’t exist is because people have been so reluctant to talk about it. And that’s part of the problem. Individual coaches who have had negative recruiting used against them are reluctant to talk about it because they are afraid that it sort of opens up the accusation to an even wider audience."

But negative recruiting has become pervasive enough to stir organized concern.

The Indianapolis-based National Collegiate Athletic Association is drafting a position paper that will serve as a resource for schools, along with developing a Web page to address the subject. An LGBT–lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender–panel is scheduled to be included in the NCAA’s 2008 annual convention in Nashville in January.

The San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights conducted a think-tank seminar on issues involving LGBT coaches last year and the center’s sports project director, Helen J. Carroll, addressed negative recruitment at a conference for women’s athletics administrators last week in Florida.

The Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, based in Lilburn, Ga., outside Atlanta, is among several groups that actively discourage negative recruiting.

Genesis for Ethics Code

"We would be naive to think it doesn’t happen," said Beth Bass, chief executive officer. "We’ve talked about it a great deal in our board of director discussions. We’ve talked about it a lot at our national conventions. A part of our code of ethics, the genesis of it was to help handle negative recruiting."

Helen J. Carroll

Carroll, a former college coach and administrator, said negative recruiting can have a significant impact on a woman’s chance for success.

"What happens is, first of all, she can lose a really good recruit that she’s trying to get to come to her school, which could have a negative effect on her team performance and therefore her job stability," she said. "If you can’t recruit the best players and they don’t come to your institution, then you can get yourself in trouble really quickly as far as your win-loss record goes."

Carroll said negative recruiting can also cause lesbian coaches to go into an identity retreat.

"The coaches at some point can even feel that they have to pretend to be heterosexual and have a boyfriend or even get married in some cases so that this negative recruiting will not happen and influence their career. And then also others will simply decide to leave the profession completely and not deal with it."

Playing on Fear

Negative recruiting plays on the fear that exposure to lesbians could be dangerous for young, impressionable women. Those fighting that homophobia were not helped by reports that head basketball coach Pokey Chatman resigned from Louisiana State University last season because of allegations that she had a relationship with a former student-athlete.

"If the accusations are true, I believe that is unethical," Griffin said. "To the extent people have stereotypes about lesbian coaches, that they are predators, to that extent, there’s always the concern that it will set the cause back in some ways."

It could also increase the likelihood that negative recruiting is used.

To fight that stereotype, Griffin heads the "It Takes a Team" educational program run through the New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation. The program works to eliminate homophobia in sports.

In the meantime, Robinson hopes to do her part as well. She is attending Suffolk University in Boston and working toward her master’s degree. She hasn’t coached since leaving Newbury College after the 2005-06 season.

"I needed to be doing more with homophobia in sport," Robinson said of her departure from coaching. "I felt like I needed to be doing something different. I want to create a leadership program that helps . . . I just needed to get on a whole different track, and that’s why I got out of coaching."

Robinson said she hopes to return to college athletics as an administrator. She hasn’t ruled out coaching again, but knows it’s unlikely she will ever coach a Division I program where negative recruiting remains a byproduct of the higher stakes and increased pressure to win.

"There are a couple programs that I would love to be a head coach at," Robinson said. "But I don’t know if I will be able to do that because I’m not willing to compromise who I am. I’m not willing to go back into the closet."

Viv Bernstein is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C., and a frequent contributor to the New York Times. She is a former staff sports reporter for the Detroit Free Press, the Hartford Courant and other newspapers and has written for numerous publications.

For more information:

National Center for Lesbian Rights:

Women’s Basketball Coaches Association:

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