The national conversation around Sports and the LGBT Experience has reached the professional ranks with the news surrounding Jason Collins and Brendan Ayanbadejo, and experts from around the Los Angeles area gathered on the USC campus to discuss how the team-oriented culture of collegiate athletics blends with hot-button sexuality topics.
"Sports is about creating a level playing field & sportsmanship. Surely sports can be a leader in this movement," says Kirk Walker, the long-time assistant softball coach over at UCLA who is one of the few coaches in college athletics to open up as gay about his sexuality.
Donna Heinel, USC Senior Associate Athletic Director
Nohelani Lawrence, PsyD, USC Clinical Sport Psychologist
Sean Mulroy, Current Openly Gay USC Swimmer
Kirk Walker, UCLA Assistant Softball Coach
Pat Griffin, Professor Emerita, UMASS-Amherst (Moderator)
These experts brought unique perspective one of the conversations last week at the USC Annenberg for the Sports and LGBT experience conference by addressing steps taken to create an accepting environment for LGBT athletes, and how major sports entities can combat homophobia and transphobia in athletics.
It began around the current state of LGBT issues on campus with swimming athlete Sean Mulroy, who felt mixed emotions about first coming to his teammates on the swim team."See our sport is very selfish, so it made the coming out process that much easier," said Mulroy, who is currently competing in his junior season.
Mulroy says that while the outside world sometimes seems rather hesitant towards acceptance, the fact remains that athletes inside the McKay center have been extremely open to change while embracing everyone's sexuality, especially under the direct influence of current Athletic Director Pat Haden.
He also admits that many more athletes on campus share his sexuality, but that the process of coming out is different for everyone and that people wishes must be respected, despite the ever-changing landscape.
The conversation really became interesting when the focus shifted from inside the players on the field to the relationship coaches hold with their players, especially throughout the recruiting process.
Keep in mind that while about 23 percent of high school athletes come out and play interscholastic sports, only two to five percent of college athletes are out, according to sources in the LGBT community.
The most profile case of course came after Britney Griner graduated from Baylor and discussed her conversations with Kim Mulkey over hiding her sexuality in school and especially with fellow recruits.
This exact issue was brought to the forefront thanks to UCLA Women's College Softball assistant Kirk Walker, who has been coaching collegiate athletics for over 20 years as an openly gay coach.
His job requires not only battling the sexual stigma that runs rampant around the sport but also must fight negative recruiting tactics that opposing schools describe him by for his open sexuality. Surprisingly enough, Walker says some of that hostility can actually stem from straight players who are non-receptive to the progressive ideas.
"You can be out about it," coach Walker says, when describing conversations with players, fellow coaches and parents alike. "My players are growing up with an identity and I don't want them to be compartmentalized about sexuality."
Walker believes that players "know from the start" on the sexuality of their coaches and that they will make decisions on committing to schools mostly based on the overall school experience.
That being said, the process of integrating a campus is much like revealing the 100-pound elephant in the building, the minority of gay and lesbian athletics requires a unilateral effort throughout the program.
The conversation shifted down a path that will certainly be explored in greater depth at a later time when Nohelani Lawrence and USC Senior Associate Athletic Director Donna Heinel mentioned the culture around campus from an executive position at respected institutions.
Firmly ingrained in the athletic mindset as both collegiate athletes at some point, Heinel and Lawrence stressed the importance of positive dialogue from the bottom up.
This meant not only the allowance for dialogue but also the possibility of mandates and even greater acceptance towards changing tendencies in today's social demographic.
Both USC and UCLA implement an Ally Program that blend openly gay and lesbian athletes with straight members of the athletic community to create a buffer for pertinent discussion and change.
What most stood out was the fact that all coaches on staff were required to participate in an instructional meeting going over basic terms, practices and philosophies over the wide range of sexualities.
In an era where acceptance is rapidly spreading amongst the masses, the efforts made by prominent members of the LGBT community are promising but also eye-opening as to how prevalent they have become on college campuses. Not only for the athletes who play but the student body, fans and faculty that interact daily with these polarizing figures.