Speaking out: Student-athletes weigh in on LGBT acceptance in athletics

May 27, 2015, 9:55 p.m.

At Stanford, we are often told implicitly and explicitly that a culture of excellence motivates students and faculty to strive for improvement. To be the best. As a former varsity student-athlete, it is clear that Stanford Athletics is no exception: quality training facilities, exceptional medical support, and 106 NCAA championship titles all serve as sharp reminders that Athletics is serious about success.

But LGBT inclusion is one issue, among others, that some students and faculty have still struggled with in the athletic community. While Stanford prides itself as a welcoming space for students with diverse sexual orientations and gender expressions, our athletic sphere as a whole is somewhat tepid. Nearly all initiatives to address LGBT inclusion have been student-driven without backing from the Administration. Moreover, we’ve seen little recent support from Athletics at our more recent events. At last year’s ESPN-worthy We A.R.E. (Athletes Reaching Equality) Pride event with Cal, nobody from the Administration attended.

That is not to say that Athletics has done nothing to address the issue. Since co-founding Stanford Athletes and Allies Together (StAAT) with Toni Kokenis ’14, Annie Graham ’14, and Smriti Sridhar ’15 two years ago, we have jointly produced a You Can Play video that is shown at New Student Athlete Orientation and organized a student-athlete panel for coaches specifically on LGBT issues with the Athletic Department.

But what effect have these efforts had on outcomes we truly care about? Since the beginning, StAAT’s overarching mission has been to promote the development of safe and open spaces within Stanford’s varsity teams for athletes of all sexual orientations and gender expressions. We’ve known all along this would not be an easy task, but we also never seriously considered how to evaluate our progress. However, this quarter, StAAT developed and launched a survey to gather feedback from current student-athletes specifically related to LGBT inclusion and how we, as StAAT, can improve.

Overall, we collected responses from 101 student-athletes across 26 of Stanford’s 36 varsity teams. Below are some highlights of the survey:

– While 71.3 percent of athletes rated their overall student-athlete experience as “excellent” or “very good,” 28.7 percent rated it only as “good,” “fair” or “poor.” In terms of how well the Athletic Administration supports student-athletes’ well-being, over half of all athletes (58.5 percent) only believed the Administration did a “good,” “fair” or “poor” job.

– Looking specifically at LGBT issues on campus, 77.2 percent believed that Stanford as a whole “is definitely an accepting/ tolerant environment” for LGBT individuals. However, when asked how Stanford Athletics views LGBT students, only 41.6 percent responded that it was “definitely” accepting, 49.5 percent replied with “more or less” accepting, and 6.9 percent said it “is not an accepting” environment.  (2 percent were unsure.) When asked to describe the environment on their specific team, 54.5 percent said it was an accepting environment, 34.7 percent thought more or less so and 9.9 percent thought it was not an accepting environment.

– To best determine next steps to create a safer environment for LGBT student athletes, we asked athletes whether they thought LGBT inclusion was an issue in Stanford Athletics and if it should be addressed. 49.5 percent of student-athletes believed “it is not an issue, but it should still be talked about” and 34.7 percent believed “it is an issue, and it should be addressed by the Stanford Athletic community.” In assessing the climate of specific teams, we found it worrisome that 56.4 percent of athletes replied that LGBT inclusion is “never” discussed on teams and 34.7 percent acknowledging it has been addressed once or twice. 70.3 percent of athletes said coaches were never a part of discussions on LGBT inclusion.

– Finally, we asked student-athletes how many instances of homophobic language or discriminatory behavior they have seen, heard or experienced this academic year on their team. (We want to clarify that this behavior need not be directed at the student-athlete responding to the survey.) Over half (55.4 percent) of all respondents stated that they had experienced at least one instance of homophobic or discriminatory behavior this year. Nearly a quarter (24.8 percent) of student-athletes that took the survey said they’ve experienced this behavior at least three times this year.

– We also wanted to see what other issues related to student-athlete well-being that respondents would like to see regularly addressed by the Athletic Administration. Here, nearly three quarters (72.3 percent) of respondents replied that mental health need more attention from the Administration. Student-athletes also sought more attention for issues of socioeconomic status (17.8 percent), race and diversity (15.8 percent) and religion (15.8 percent).

For an athletic program that strives for excellence, these findings should be a wake-up call. It is reassuring to see that many students have reported generally positive experiences as athletes on campus, but when less than half of them can claim with certainty that Athletics is an accepting place for LGBT student-athletes, it is evident that something needs to change.

What is particularly concerning is the prevalence of derogatory language in the athletic community. Simply put, there is absolutely no place for homophobic or any other demeaning language on any of Stanford’s teams. It is toxic for student-athletes that are “out”, it discourages those that may be struggling to come out or looking for support, and it dampens team cohesion. Addressing the language issue is a crucial preliminary step to developing truly safe spaces for all LGBT and allied student-athletes, and the Athletic Administration should realize that it not only has the ability, but also the responsibility, to drive this change home by educating coaches and staff.

At StAAT, we’ve worked hard to shed light on an issue that has received relatively little attention in the past at Stanford. With new feedback and a fresh perspective, we will work alongside the Athletic Administration and commit to making strides to improve the well-being and experiences of all student-athletes.

Noah Garcia, Public Policy co-term ’15

Special thanks to Toni Kokenis ’14 for her invaluable feedback

Contact Noah Garcia at noahg626 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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