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Collins announcement fuels positive discussion at NCAA Inclusion Forum

During a breakout session at the NCAA Inclusion Forum on Tuesday about how media influences an inclusive culture in sports, Augusta State Athletics Director Clint Bryant challenged panelists to keep the discussion alive.

“You are the nation’s conscience,” said Bryant, a longtime contributor to the NCAA governance structure and a staunch advocate for equality. “The media has an obligation to make sure these issues present themselves, and that we have open and honest discussion about them.”

The discussion certainly was lively at a session that featured media members Cyd Zeigler from outsports.com, Carol Stiff from espnW and G.E. Branch from Diverse magazine. And much of it focused on the announcement just 24 hours earlier from the NBA’s Jason Collins on SI.com that he was gay. The proclamation from the Washington Wizards center who had been hiding the fact for his entire 13-year career after playing collegiately at Stanford created a frenzy of attention, most of it supportive.

Zeigler, who has made a career of trying to end homophobia in sports, wrote on outsports.comthat Collins’ proclamation moved him to tears. “I’m not afraid to admit it,” Zeigler wrote. “I cried Monday. A couple times.”

In his column, Zeigler said that while Collins’ announcement wasn’t “the answer to all of our prayers or that those who continue to perpetuate homophobia in sports will now silence their quieting roar.” Instead, he said, “I just kept getting emotional thinking about how far we’d come – those of us who’ve been fighting this battle for so many years – to now see something that many thought was impossible.”

During Tuesday’s panel discussion, Zeigler said the Collins situation exemplified how the media has now joined the conversation to which Bryant referred.

“As a media member myself, I often struggle with … when am I an activist and when am I a journalist,” Zeigler told the 100-member audience in the NCAA’s Christine Grant Ballroom. “But I’ve come to the conclusion that journalists are activists – that’s what we do. With Jason Collins, the media took a story of an athlete and changed the world. Never again will a young kid grow up in a world where there is not an openly gay male professional athlete.”

All three panelists said that what Collins did, even though he’s a professional athlete, could open up the discussion at the collegiate level as well. That resonated with the crowd of athletics administrators.

Zeigler told the story of a conversation he had three years ago with Alan Gendreau, a placekicker at Middle Tennessee State who was contemplating coming out publicly while he was still playing college ball. He was wondering whether doing so would affect his chances of playing professionally. Zeigler advised him against it.

“I said it would probably affect his future,” Zeigler said. “Today, though, I would tell him that it would not affect his future.” Gendreau did come out after his collegiate career and is attracting consideration in the pro ranks.

Branch, the online editor of Diverse magazine who spent 20 years before that as an assignment editor with USA Today, said as younger reporters matriculate into the business, there will be less of a shock value regarding homosexuality in athletics – professional or otherwise.

“It’s a natural progression,” Branch said. “As younger people come into the profession, the attitude shifts more toward the ‘who cares?’ when it comes to sexual orientation. We’re more equipped now to deal with these issues.”

The breakout was one of several that followed the three-day forum’s opening session during which NCAA Chief Inclusion Officer Bernard Franklin encouraged participants to take the leadership reins in an area that needs it.

Franklin said the forum is a product of the NCAA’s move three years ago to expand what earlier had been almost exclusively a focus on diversity from a hiring capacity. Rather than simply diversifying the pipeline from which institutions hire athletics directors, coaches and other leaders in athletics, the NCAA’s inclusion effort now seeks a culture change.

“If we are to be successful in creating a more inclusive culture, we have to commit to a state of collective action,” Franklin said. “This forum was developed around the notion that there needs to be such a commitment.

“Inclusion fosters a culture that values and uses diversity to reach the goals and objectives of our organization. We now know that a commitment only to diversity does not necessarily lead to greater inclusion; in fact, it may lead only to greater assimilation. The problem with assimilation is that it tolerates differences – inclusion celebrates differences.”

NCAA President Mark Emmert followed Franklin by urging NCAA members to remain steadfast in the commitment.

“If you want change, you have to stay on it and you have to work at it,” Emmert said. “Partner with people across your campuses and your conferences and across the Association who – like we’re trying to do at this forum – are constantly and mutually reinforcing. We exist as an Association to support all of the young men and women who participate in intercollegiate athletics, and that’s what we have to stay focused on.”

The final session on the forum’s first day featured Aimee Mullins, a former sprinter at Georgetown who has made national news with her success using prosthetic legs. Her inspirational story used both humor and poignancy to both entertain and inform the forum crowd. 

Women’s issues also addressed

Women’s sports issues also are on the Inclusion Forum agenda. Among the most powerful moments at the media breakout session in fact came when Carol Stiff from espnW presented a two-minute trailer touting the network’s Nine for IX film series that chronicles the trials and tribulations of the Title IX generation in sports.

A related session on women’s issues occurred Wednesday when former NCAA membership president Judy Sweet helped present strategies for successfully hiring, mentoring and supporting women coaches.

Sweet said only 42.9 percent of women’s teams in NCAA sports are coached by a female head coach. It was 90 percent in 1972 when Title IX became law, but the percentage has spiraled steadily downward since.

Also, for the first time, fewer than half of women’s teams have a female assistant coach. Sweet said that less than 20 percent of all teams (men’s and women’s) are coached by a female head coach.

Sweet reported what current female coaches cite as primary challenges, including the ongoing struggle they face in fitting professional decisions with personal goals.

“They often are not willing to apply for new positions, especially if they have to uproot their families,” Sweet said. “And they are less confident applying for positions than men who are less qualified. Many don’t feel comfortable with recruiting and fundraising.”

She also noted that many female coaches are reluctant to ask for help, because they worry that they’ll be perceived as being weak.

“They have limited knowledge of Title IX requirements, and they don’t know how to address gender inequities,” Sweet said.

Ultimately, Sweet said, female coaches want most to feel more connected and supported.

Wednesday’s session featured tips on how to do that from Celia Slater, the executive director of the NCAA Women Coaches Academy. She and Sweet also co-direct the Alliance of Women Coaches, which provides professional development and support for current and aspiring coaches.

“Of our 987 graduates, almost 80 percent are staying in coaching, so we know we’re having an impact,” Slater said.

Slater said the most effective support systems on campuses include networking opportunities for female coaches and administrators to convene and discuss common issues. She talked about “loop groups” that organize women coaches and administrators in this regard. Mentoring is also a key, Slater said, especially for young female coaches.

See more on the Alliance of Women Coaches atwww.GoCoaches.org.