Sherri Murrell is On Our Team
The Portland State University's women's basketball coach calls foul on homophobia within her sport.
In 2009, when Sherri Murrell, the women’s basketball coach at Portland State, decided to list her partner, Rena Shuman, in the team’s media guide, she knew that she would be coming out to the world. She was about to be the first NCAA Division I coach to go public, and it was a big deal. But she didn’t think that three years later, at the start of the 2011-12 season, she would still be the only one who had done so.
Surprisingly, despite being the only out lesbian in her field, Murrell says she has “not had any negative responses” to her coming out. She likes to tell about what happened recently when a recruit and her mom came to visit. After they took a campus tour that included a visit to Murrell’s office, where she has photos of her twins on display, the mom asked her what her husband did for a living. “I have a partner and she stays home with the kids,” Murrell responded. “That’s great,” was the mom’s reaction.
“It’s Portland,” Murrell explains. “Lesbian moms are about as common as food carts.” But as she well knows, not every place is as accepting. She gets calls from other coaches about two or three times a month, asking for advice on how to handle homophobic situations. Most of these calls come from the South.
This is hardly shocking when you consider that in women’s basketball negative recruiting still continues to occur. For those not familiar with this deeply homophobic tactic, negative recruiting is a practice in which coaches attempt to scare potential players away from another school’s program by claiming that the coaches or a significant number of the players are lesbian. At the highest levels of the game, missing out on just one talented recruit can have a huge impact on a team. Even at schools with nondiscrimination policies, the fear is that if the coach is out, it could affect the team’s ability to win games. And as women’s college basketball becomes more popular with audiences (today, it generates more revenue than any other female sport), that fear is keeping lesbian coaches trapped in the closet.
Photo credit: Steven Brenner
“Negative recruiting is still rampant in Division I basketball,” says Pat Griffin, an LGBT sports blogger and the director of Changing the Game, a sports project of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network. “The good news is that times are slowly changing. There are more and more parents and athletes who are turned off when a coach tries to do that.”
Recent PSU graduate Kelli Valentine agrees. Learning that her coach was a lesbian was a nonissue for her and her teammates. “I didn’t think anything of it,” she says. “We talk about how Murrell is the only out basketball coach and how that’s so crazy to us. I do have friends on a lot of different teams and their coaches are gay and we know they are, but they won’t talk about it. They think Murrell is really cool for actually being open…and we can actually talk to her about it.”
People often assume that men’s sports are bastions of homophobia and women’s programs are more accepting of lesbians and bisexual women. But that’s not always the case, says Griffin. “The intensity of homophobia in women’s sports is really strong,” she says, adding, “Women’s basketball has been so closeted for so long that I think it’s really hard to break out of that culture. That’s another reason why what Sherri is doing is important.”
But if things are really going to change, more people will need to overcome their fear of the consequences and just step out of the closet. And, of course, high-profile collegiate programs should offer more support at the policy level. “Our profession needs to wake up. We need to do some things that penalize negative recruiting,” Murrell says. “We need to make it a nonissue.”
Murrell admits she doesn’t want to be known as the gay coach—she wants to be known as a successful coach. And for the most part, she is. Under her leadership, PSU won the Big Sky Championship in 2010 and played in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. (Murrell herself earned co-Big Sky Coach of the Year honors in 2011.)
Despite her winning record, Murrell says she’s sure there have been attempts at negative recruiting against her. “At the same time, you don’t want to coach that kid anyway,” she says. “If they’re going to reject me, they’re going to reject someone on the team who’s different. I’m recruiting kids who work together.”
Murrell wishes other lesbian coaches would take heart from her success. “Those of us who are gay need to come out,” she says. “We need to show that we’re normal. The more that coaches like me show that we can be successful, that you can function and not get fired, that you can run a program and be good at what you do, the more it’s going to get better.”
Griffin agrees, but also says that sport organizations like the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association should start sanctioning teams that engage in negative recruiting. “I also want to hold the feet of straight coaches to the fire on this,” she says. “I am getting increasingly impatient with straight coaches who won’t speak up on this.” She adds, “It benefits all of women’s basketball to stop being afraid of the stereotype of lesbian women in basketball.”
She points out that straight high-profile male players Steve Nash and Grant Hill have spoken out against homophobia. “You would be hard-pressed to find prominent women athletes or coaches speaking out in the same way about LGBT issues,” she says.
In the meantime, Murrell—who knows better than anyone that victory is a team effort—is standing alone with a basketball, waiting for another coach to come out and join her team.