Athletics Leadership and LGBTQ: Suggested Best Practices and Guiding Principles

Neema Bell

Neema Bell

Until recently, all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (“LGBTQ”) student-athletes, collegiate coaches, and administrators were expected to keep their sexual orientation or non-conforming gender identity hidden. Social views of LGBTQ individuals are slowly becoming more tolerant and positive and it is becoming less acceptable, even illegal, to harass or discriminate against LGBTQ student-athletes, coaches and administrators which can include making anti-LGBTQ comments or slurs. Although transgender issues have recently received significant attention, associated LGBTQ issues have rarely been adequately addressed by intercollegiate athletic programs. Educational institutions and athletic programs must respond to these realities. They must meet this emerging equal opportunity vacuity head on and address the existence and needs of LBGTQ student-athletes seriously.

The NCAA includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its non-discrimination and non-harassment policy, recently re-affirming it as one of its core values. The NCAA is committed to diversity, inclusion and gender equity among NCAA student-athletes, coaches and athletic administrators. Thoughtful programming and educational resources have been encouraged by the NCAA in order to nurture diverse and inclusive campuses and competitive cultures on the bases of age, race, sex, national origin, class, creed, educational background, disability, gender expression, sexual orientation, parental status, geographic location and economic status. These initiatives are to provide fair and equal opportunities for all athletes and sport enthusiasts to participate in sports.

The NCAA has voiced its commitment to diversity and inclusion in response to some states’ recent legislative actions allowing residents to refuse to provide services to certain people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. At its April 2016 Board of Governors meeting, the NCAA took proactive and decisive steps to safeguard and protect not only student-athlete participants, but also spectators from discrimination at any NCAA event regardless of the division or sport. The Board of Governors adopted a NCAA championships-anti-discrimination policy across all divisions and sports, setting forth new explicit requirements/criteria for hosting and bidding on NCAA events.

At the heart of these declarations is the belief that affiliated schools’ learning environments are enhanced by diversity and inclusion. To that end, it demands equitable participation and an inclusive culture for not only student athletes, but coaches, administrators, and spectators alike. Through these hosting and bidding requirements the NCAA has made known its intention to provide an environment for all NCAA activities that is safe, healthy, and free of discrimination, protecting the dignity and respect of everyone involved.

Athletic programs are ill-advised to ignore these matters and the associated costly consequences of doing so. Rather, they should proactively discuss, adopt, and enforce competent, effective, and coordinated policies and practices that foster and promote equal opportunities for all, including LGBTQ student-athletes, to participate and compete. Most programs and administrators, however, don’t have the slightest idea of how to handle even the most fundamental accommodations for LGBTQ student-athletes, e.g., what pronouns to use, appropriate dressing, shower, and bathroom facilities, uniforms and dress codes at practice or competition.

Suggested Best Practices and Guiding Principles: To promote diversity and inclusion in collegiate athletics programs, the athletic administrators should understand that:

  • Athletics administrators, coaches, and team leaders (“Athletics Leadership”) must set the example and champion the value of all aspects of diversity.
  • Implementing policy and practices to address discrimination and inequity based on any protected status, including but not limited to LGBTQ status among student-athletes is fundamental.
  • Collegiate athletics programs provide an unparalleled opportunity for student-athletes and athletic administrators to work with/compete against others who share the common competitive objective of achieving athletic excellence, but who come from diverse backgrounds.
  • Athletics Leadership must anticipate and proactively address LGBTQ student-athletes’ access issues in line with institutional policy.
  • No one should assume all individuals are heterosexual.
  • The military principle of “don’t ask, don’t tell” does not advance efforts to identify the safety associated with common ground, but rather fosters fear, secrecy, ignorance and hypocrisy.
  • Institutions have a legal obligation to provide equal opportunity to all student-athletes and to personnel, including coaches and administrative staff and there can be no retaliation against anyone who complains about discrimination or harassment based on any protected class, including transgender or sexual expression even if the complaining person was incorrect.
  • Promoting diversity and inclusion does not require approval of the behavior/belief only an agreement that LGBTQ persons are entitled to equally participate safely in all aspect of society free of condemnation and discrimination.
  • Focusing on instituting sound policy development, discrimination prevention, education, and consistent enforcement procedures and consequences is critical and requires:
    • Educating program participants and administrators of state, federal, and local non-discrimination and non-harassment laws, including those addressing gender identity and sexual expression.
    • Ensuring the existence of a compliant and inclusive non-discrimination and non-harassment policy that includes gender identity and expression. (These policy statements should be included on all official department documents and websites.)
    • Reviewing and understanding all department and institutional policies regarding inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity, transgender identity, preferred terminology, current substantiated scientific information concerning transgender participation in sports, and adopting fair and effective policies.
    • Respecting LGBTQ student-athletes’ right to privacy and confidentiality while strongly encouraging, if not requiring, that others do the same.
    • Using preferred and respectful terminology when referring to transgender individuals and insisting that all athletic participants and media do also.
    • Correcting and never tolerating any behavior from others that is discriminatory or harassing and if such behavior does occur, bringing it to the attention of those in the best position to appropriately and adequately address and end it.

There can be little argument that intercollegiate athletics hold a highly visible societal position both locally and nationally. Collegiate coaches, administrators, sponsoring programs and student-athletes are not only highly visible, but also influential. All have a vital leadership potential and role to shoulder in establishing respectful and inclusive climates in collegiate athletics, but also in everyday life. It is essential that athletes and collegiate administrators and institutions do their respective part to demonstrate compassion and a reassuring sense of engagement surrounding issues of diversity and inclusion, even if there’s a long road ahead to achieving the goal of equality for all.

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