Nevin Caple learned about the pressures and complex nature of finding safe and supportive athletics spaces during her undergraduate years at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Caple, who was a women’s basketball player, openly identifies as lesbian, so she discovered firsthand the challenges schools face in creating inclusive environments.
More than a decade later, Caple is using her experiences to help coaches and school administrators understand how they can develop supportive environments on their campuses.
A recent project is as a consultant on an NCAA office of inclusion program that began in November to provide athletics administrators at historically black colleges and universities with tools and resources to support student-athletes and colleagues on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning issues.
The program was started to keep the values of inclusion a high priority throughout the membership. On the HBCU campuses – beginning with Morgan State, Coppin State and Bowie State universities – the program has provided the type of training that some athletics departments may not have the resources in their budgets to provide.
“My philosophy is not to change personal values or beliefs but partner with institutions to help coaches and administrators implement inclusive behaviors,” says Caple, a 2003 graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University, Metropolitan Campus. “I would like to create a pipeline of LGBTQ and straight ally leadership, so student-athletes can find their likeness in the athletic community.”
Caple begins her agenda with a one-hour, closed-door meeting with the athletics administrators only. The gathering is used to address fears, concerns, responsibilities and opportunities for the inclusion of LGBTQ student-athletes in HBCU athletics programs.
That is followed by a two-hour training session with the coaches in the athletics department. Caple breaks the coaches into smaller group sessions to discuss best practices and policies to address common LGBTQ-related topics. The discussions can include the coaches’ role when LGBTQ athletes come out, name calling and slurs, dating on the team, concerns about having LGBTQ teammates in the locker room or hotel room, and the coaches’ role in creating a team climate that fosters respect and an inclusive culture.
The sessions can focus on proactive versus reactive responses, negative recruiting, how to set expectations, how to bridge the gaps between campus departments and what resources are available to help. Part of the training also attempts to teach the administrators and coaches about different pressures an openly LGBTQ person may feel, such as being looked at as the spokesperson for any sexual-orientation issue.
“They want to continue to be a coach or a student-athlete first, not the gay coach or the gay student-athlete,” Caple says. “The most significant thing that changes from before and after someone comes out is your perception of the situation. I want to help straight coaches and administrators understand their role in the coming-out process.”
Starting the conversation about LGBTQ issues can be the hardest part on most campuses.
Caple believes many coaches have good intentions, but when it comes to addressing LGBTQ inclusion, they can become afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. That can lead to avoiding hard conversations.
“Unlike more visible identities, such as race and gender, young people who are struggling to reconcile the differences between certain parts of their identity may choose to hide their sexual orientation and gender identity if they don’t feel safe,” Caple says. “The time is now for coaches and administrators to create space to engage in constructive dialogue, learning best practices and policies to show LGBTQ student-athletes they are valued and respected.”