Stony Brook approaches new SUNY resolution to support LGBT student-athletes

When former Stony Brook University volleyball coach Theresa Tiso arrived on campus for her job interview in 1981, she noticed something different.

“I’m walking across campus to the interview and I see a sign with the fist that says ‘gay pride’,” she said. “I saw it all over and it was just accepted, and that turned the way that I looked at Stony Brook.”

Now, after coaching for 19 years and teaching physical education and physical therapy for 15, Tiso, who currently teaches Sociology of Sport at Stony Brook, is thrilled to see that the State University of New York (SUNY) is joining the movement to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) student-athletes.

On October 25, 2014, the SUNY Faculty Senate passed a resolution, which requests that all SUNY institutions with athletic programs develop programs to support LGBT student-athletes, coaches and staff and prevent anti-LGBT bias and discrimination for the 2015-2016 academic year. According to the resolution, 55 of the 64 SUNY campuses have athletic programs, making up nearly 800 teams with 14,000 student-athletes.

“It’s been an issue for many, many years,” Tiso said.  “We’ve talked about it but usually it was so marginalized as a topic or it was a little tiny bit of the topic in athletics. Everybody knew about it but not everybody embraced it.”

The resolution comes less than a year after former University of Missouri and St. Louis Rams football player Michael Sam revealed his sexuality in February 2014 before the National Football League (NFL) Draft, making him the first publicly gay football player in the NFL and bringing the topic of sexuality in college and professional sports to light.

The resolution

An associate professor of Humanities, Timothy W. Gerken, at Morrisville State College, a SUNY school in upstate New York, produced the original draft of the resolution after learning not about Sam but instead that SUNY New Paltz was the only SUNY school participating in the Athlete Ally program. Gerken is also a member of the The Committee on Diversity and Cultural Competence in the SUNY Faculty Senate (UFS).

As per its website, the Athlete Ally program is a nonprofit organization that “provides public awareness campaigns, educational programming and tools and resources to foster inclusive sports communities.” 51 universities across the country are currently involved with the program.

“As far as I know, there are not any University systems that have adopted these policies,” Gerken said in an email. “However, most university systems have done a good job of ending bias against athletes of color and women. There is no reason why they can not move to address anti-LGBT bias.”

Gerken said that the resolution also presents SUNY with an opportunity to make college sports a more accepting place for LGBT athletes.

“SUNY may be doing a good job making campuses inviting for LGBTQAI students, I am still not sure that athletes and coaches are comfortable coming out to their teams,” he said. “SUNY has a chance to be a leader nationally by reaching out to all student athletes by reassuring them that if they come to a SUNY campus as an out athlete they will be treated the same as the rest of their teammates.”

None of the University Faculty Senators voted against the resolution, Gerken said, but some did abstain from voting. While he was unsure of their reasoning, UFS Senator Frederick Walter, who served as president of the Stony Brook University Faculty Senate for four years, said that abstentions are not always black and white.

“Some people abstain from voting because they don’t understand the issues,” Walter said. “Some because they think it may not go far enough or it may go too far.”

The resolution gives links to different organizations related to LGBT-issues in sports but makes no suggestions to the implementation of specific programs. Walter said that this may actually work in its favor because the resolution does apply to 55 SUNY campuses.

“Of course it’s vague,” Walter said. “There’s no way you’re going to get 60 or 80 senators to agree on something that’s too specific. It can’t be done. Vagueness can be a virtue.”

Stony Brook Athletics’ approach

Stony Brook University, which boasts NCAA Division I status for all 20 of its athletic teams, is among the 55 campuses that is about to embark on developing such programs.

For Women’s Lacrosse player Alyssa Guido, there’s never a feeling of discomfort within her team about the subject.

“My team loves it, they’re very open about it,” Guido said. “We all kid around and joke and they make me feel comfortable and I’ve never had a problem with coaches, players, other teammates, other teams in general.”

While the resolution is new, different members of the Athletics department already work  towards making Stony Brook a safe and accepting environment for its student-athletes and staff.

The conference that Stony Brook participates in, The America East, was the first NCAA conference to officially partner with the initiative. This past summer, several Stony Brook student-athletes created a video to show support for the cause, in which SBU volleyball player Laura Hathaway said, “I’m gay and I’m a Seawolf.”

Current graduate assistant to Athletics administration and former volleyball player Greta Strenger said Stony Brook’s student-athletes have been particularly involved in the You Can Play Project, which works towards “ensuring equality, respect and safety for all athletes, without regard to sexual orientation,” according to its mission statement.

“All of our student-athletes have had a really positive experience with [the You Can Play Project],” Strenger said. “They’ve all sort of bought into the message and think it’s an important one to send to our department and the university community and fans as well.”

But the process is ongoing. Strenger and Executive Associate Director of Stony Brook Athletics Donna Woodruff both confirmed that the department will continue to participate in the You Can Play Project but is also working on further including diversity initiatives into its new five year strategic plan.

“Within that there’s a great commitment to diversity and throughout the department, whether it’s our student-athletes [or] staff,” Woodruff said. “So there will be some other things that we’ll make sure certainly stay at the forefront.”

As for LGBT support programs for the next academic year, Woodruff said that she sees the time as more of a reflection period for Athletics rather than a crunch time to meet a quota.

“I don’t think any resolution is saying that you have to develop 15 new things just for the sake of developing them,” she said. “The point is to make sure that athletic departments are aware that this is an important thing and if you’re already doing 15 things, then you’ve already met the resolution.”

The athletics departments at the University at Albany and Binghamton University, two other Division I SUNY institutions, were not able to be reached for comment.

Outside of Athletics

Walter said that during review of the resolution, some senators were curious about why it only targets SUNY athletic departments.

“I think there was some discussion on ‘why are we focusing in on athletics?’,” Walter said. “‘Why don’t we make this campus-wide?’”

John Martin, a graduate assistant in LGBTQ Services, explained that much more goes into making this initiative campus-wide than people realize.

“It takes labor,” Martin said. “You have to educate people. You have to put on trainings. You have to put on programs. That’s all hours of work.”

Martin pointed out that Binghamton University has “not a single professional staff person working in LGBTQ support services.”

The list of resources for LGBTQ students on Binghamton’s website shows links to student-run organizations, which Martin said have faculty advisors but it’s students advising other students. There are also links to several off-campus resources in the Binghamton area.

The description of Binghamton’s Safe Zone program says that “its mission is to create a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment for all LGBTQ people” and that “allies of the Safe Zone have undergone training and are supportive of LGBTQ individuals.” However, the link provided to Safe Zone program leads to a page that says the page cannot be found.

Chris Tanaka is Stony Brook’s Coordinator for LGBTQ Services. The 2014-2015 academic year is the first year that LGBTQ Services is its own stand-alone program. In previous years, LGBTQ Services fell under SBU’s Center for Prevention and Outreach. She is currently the only full time staff member working in LGBTQ Services. As a graduate student, Martin works in LGBTQ Services about 20 hours per week.

“We currently do have some non-discrimination policies in place that apply to the University as a whole so I guess it’s interesting that it’s just sort of targeting LGBTQ athletes,” Tanaka said about the resolution. “I’m all about having more programs that educate about gender and sexuality in general so if that’s just one more place that it’s happening, I’m all for it.”

Tanaka said that Stony Brook’s Safe Spaces program, similar to Binghamton’s Safe Zones, has a two part training with an introduction course and a workshop that are vital for an individual on campus to become an ally of LGBTQ individuals and be considered a “safe space.” Since its inception in 2008, Tanaka said that Stony Brook has trained around 400 individuals.

According to Walter, athletics departments and universities generally have an advantage in taking on projects like this resolution, which is often “not fair” to the general student body.

“Athletes are sort of a ‘pampered minority’,” Walter said. “The D-I athletes have a role to play for the university, they have to compete for the university, carry the university’s logo around the state and the country…It’d be fantastic if all of our students could be treated as well as the athletes are in terms of academic support but they aren’t. Why? Money. It’s no excuse for anything but we take care of them because they’re a small, isolated easily-identifiable subset of people. But for the general population, we don’t have the resources to treat everyone as well.”

Changing the game

Guido said that although her teammates are LGBT student-athletes, often times athletes may feel like they may create awkwardness within the team and therefore may not feel comfortable coming out or being open about their sexuality. “The team chemistry [might not] be there,” she said. “[There could be] inter-relationships, out-of-relationships, things just get uncomfortable for people, things like that.”

For Gerken, the resolution is more than just creating programs to boost awareness, but to also change the mindset on LGBTs in sports.

“We need to end homophobia on the field and in the locker rooms. There needs to be work done to end anti-LGBT language and discriminatory actions,” he said. “Many athletes that use this language may not realize they have LGBT teammates and may not even seem themselves as biased. The education these programs provide would help address these issues.”

Both Gerken and Tiso were coaching college sports (Gerken was a wrestling coach) 30 years ago and said that the outlook on LGBTs in sports has generally evolved for the better since then.

“I felt like a load was lifted off my shoulders when I came here [to Stony Brook],” Tiso said about when she took the coaching job at SBU. “I could see the inclusion, even if it wasn’t perfect, it was there. They’re such a diverse campus and working hard to include people.”

“Our society has changed,” Gerken said. “We need to keep changing. We will be successful when the question is simply “What is the most difficult part of being a student-athlete.”

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