The unavoidable question

Updated: June 24, 2011, 2:57 PM ET
HoopGurlz

ESPN.com IllustrationESPN.com IllustrationWhile coaches denied that sexual preference would be a deciding factor in recruitment, it often comes up during the process.

When one head coach at a mid-major school discovered that a prospect slept with one of her current players during an official visit, the recruitment of that prospect ended immediately.

"I've been in situations as a player and coach when teammates have been in relationships with each other and it's all bad," the coach explained. "I would never not recruit a kid because of sexual orientation, but I don't want what I call 'inbreeding' on my team. I talk about it with my kids. I don't care who they date as long as it's not a teammate. It just never ends well and affects the team."

As in the previous discussion about race, coaches did not want to think that sexual orientation is an issue in recruiting, but it is at the very least a consideration, albeit one that depends on situation and context.

When ESPN HoopGurlz asked more than 20 college head and assistant coaches or recruiting coordinators whether a prospect's sexual orientation should be a factor in her recruitment, all were adamant that it should not be. Yet, when the discussions progressed, it turned out that sexual orientation, in some situations, could have an impact.

"It does matter," said the head coach referenced above. "I'm being honest."

Another said, "It's an unavoidable question."

The key, even these coaches said, is that sexual orientation, in and of itself, never should be a "deciding factor" in recruiting. As recently as 2006, a major tempest occurred when a former Penn State player, Jennifer Harris, accused in a federal lawsuit the then-longtime Nittany Lions head coach, Rene Portland, of dismissing her from the team for perceived homosexual activity. Portland, who'd admitted in a 1986 Chicago Sun-Times story that she told prospects and their parents that she forbade lesbian activity on her team, resigned under pressure after the lawsuit was settled.

The aftermath of the Portland lawsuit seemed to galvanize the sport against an overt bias based on sexual orientation.

"Sexual orientation has absolutely no factor in recruiting decisions," one prominent assistant coach said. "I don't know prospects' sexual orientation nor do I ask. It has no bearing on their skills as a basketball player nor is it any of my business.

"Part of our jobs as teachers, coaches, educators is to help young people understand that everyone is different and that we must respect and show tolerance for differences whether we personally agree with them or not. It is no different than showing tolerance for different religions and cultures."

Another said, "Kids experiment in high school and especially in college. I think it's wrong to hold judgment over them. Just as in race, sexual orientation doesn't matter to me. It's their personality I care about. I want my team to know they will never be discriminated or preyed upon in my program. Even though this is basketball, it's not just about basketball. It's about life. I never want to close a door or an opportunity in life."

Still, many coaches insisted the topic almost always comes up in recruiting, usually raised by a prospect or, even more often, by a prospect's parents.

And, in such cases, the issue can cut both ways. Some parents are concerned their daughters might be "flipped," as one coach put it, by a gay teammate or coach. On the other hand, heterosexual coaching staffs believe they've often lost openly gay recruits. "I think they just don't feel we can relate enough," one coach said.

Several coaches admitted they feared their programs being branded -- whether it be as gay or anti-gay.

Trying to determine sexual orientation is problematic, many coaches said, though others believed players are more openly homosexual today than in years past. Those coaches cited players trumpeting sexual orientation on social media.

"For some reason, I've had a lot of my players 'come out' to me," said one head coach. "I really appreciate that they trust me with that, but a lot of times I just want to say, 'TMI!' [Too much information]. I don't know what they expect me to do with that. On a lot of levels, I'd rather not know."

The surefire way of sexual orientation revealing itself is any intersection with team dynamics. As pointed out before, that can come when teammates date. On the other hand, several coaches cautioned that many different kinds of relationships -- heterosexual teammates who compete for the same males, or friends in a major fight -- could impact team chemistry.

"I think that you should protect the chemistry and safety of the team environment, so it is all in how someone handles their dating and sexuality," a head coach said. "I do not want dating within the team because that invites drama and compromises some of the purity that exists with platonic sisterly relationships. It also could be a time bomb and distraction at any point.

"But it is just like a person that lets a male-female relationship take priority over the team or causes drama on the team, it is all in how you handle it. I am ok with people that make different choices than me. I want them to feel cared about, invested in, and trusted in the same way as a heterosexual player. It is all in how it affects the team. All that to say, if it is handled in a professional way that keeps the team first, then it isn't a factor in the recruitment. But I feel the same way about players in how they handle their relationships with boys."

Our next installment takes on a subject -- the possible ban on early offers -- that is very much on the minds of coaches. But it is a far more cut-and-dried issue than sexual orientation.

Women's basketball may be perceived by some to be a "gay sport," but college coaches say the more accurate portrayal is of a closer reflection of society, where homosexual lifestyles are more broadly accepted. As such, most coaches preferred a "don't ask, don't tell" approach, similar to that which is being weaned from the U.S. military.

"We don't ask our kids about their sexual orientation," one assistant coach said. "When I played, we never were asked. I think this is good. Some of the greatest relationships I've had as a coach have been with kids who enjoy the same sex. I don't think you love another person any differently because of your orientation. At the end of the day, I don't go to bed with that player and the only way I have to judge her is how she treats other people."

Interviewers for ESPN HoopGurlz included Lisa Bodine, Chris Hansen, Kara Howe, Mark Lewis, Glenn Nelson and Kelvin Powell.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.

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