How friendly are colleges’ LGBTQ athletic policies?

Division I institutions earn a range of scores - some 100s, some zeroes - on their guidance, resources for student-athletes, staff.
By: | April 5, 2021
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What are your college and university’s policies when it comes to athletics and the LGBTQIA+ community?

According to a new report from Athlete Ally, more than 90% of Division I institutions lack fully inclusive policies for transgender athletes. Another 70% fail to provide guidance and materials on LBGTQ+ to athletes and staff. That would seem to run counter to many of their own college- or university-wide stances and trainings around diversity, equity and inclusion.

The issue of inclusion and athletics is grabbing national attention as a bloc of more than 25 states – including Alabama, Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas – have issued or are considering bans on transgender athletes competing primarily at the K-12 level and some collegiately, too, such as Mississippi. That has caught the attention of the NCAA and President Mark Emmert, who noted in a statement that its host sites must be “safe, healthy, and free of discrimination … The NCAA is concerned with the numerous bills that have been filed across our country related to sport participation.”

Emmert was referring specifically to Idaho, the first state to ban trans individuals from competitions in both high school and college athletics. That bill set the tone for others looking to follow.

It’s not just trans athletes facing backlash but those throughout the LGB community. Many athletes – and students in general – fear coming out might jeopardize their status on teams or worse, be forced off teams in states or schools where discrimination is more likely to occur.

The Athletic Equality Index, done by Athlete Ally since 2017, highlights that while some athletic departments have enacted inclusive policies and provided robust resources to help mitigate discrimination, other institutions have not, even in states where LGBTQ+ is more accepted.

For example, 80% of institutions have no specific codes of conduct or punishments for fans at games who use discriminatory language or signage at games. Athlete Ally says less than 3% of NCAA those athletes have their LGBTQ+ identities fully protected. The organization, which aims to “end homophobia and transphobia in sport”, says it is imperative to keep those students front of mind as they continue to set and improve their policies and guidelines.

“Colleges and universities have a responsibility to provide inclusive and welcoming environments for LGBTQ+ student-athletes on and off the playing field,” says Joanna Hoffman, Director of Communications for Athlete Ally. “It’s our hope that the Athletic Equality Index is a resource for athletic department staff who want to scale up their policies and practices, and for student-athletes who want to know if they’ll be able to safely be their full selves while playing the sport they love.”

Schools that scored high … and low

As the topic divides the country, sometimes across political and/or religious lines, it is a nonstarter for students who have faced adversity, like this world-class athlete. Getting backing from the university made a difference in his life.

“As an out gay athlete, I know that having on-campus resources for LGBTQ+ student athletes, like Cal SAGSA (Cal Student Athlete Gay Straight Alliance), help foster an ongoing culture of inclusion,” said Julian Venonsky, US Rowing Senior National Team coxswain. “These resources, and policies that ensure nondiscrimination, make a tremendous difference. I’m proud to be a UC Berkeley alum and to see my alma mater modeling what an inclusive athletic environment looks like.”

On the Athlete Ally report, UC Berkeley scored a 90 out of a possible 100, an excellent rating from the study, which looked at a number of factors including nondiscrimination policies, resources and even the penchant for sexual misconduct.

Pac-12 schools highlighted the disparities that can exist even within conferences. For example, the University of Arizona and University of Southern California each netted scores of 100, while the University of Utah received a 30 and Oregon State and Arizona State each had 35s.

The SEC, comprised largely of schools from the South, did not have a college or university score about 50 (that was the University of South Carolina). Three scored less than 20 – the University of Alabama, Auburn University and Mississippi State. All three have nondiscrimination policies in some form but almost no other policies or resources for their LGBTQ+ community.

 

Big brand conferences such as the Power 5 are not alone. In the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and Southern Conference, comprise largely of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), many have limited nondiscrimination policies but little else. Bethune-Cookman scored no points, Samford University had 5, Morgan State, North Carolina Central, North Carolina Greensboro, Virginia Military Institute, Furman University and Coppin State had just 10 and several others had 15.

Institutions that along with UC Berkeley and the University of Southern California with the most inclusive policies and resources for LGBTQ+ student-athletes that scored a perfect 100 were these: Boston University, George Mason, Kent State, Ohio State, UC-Davis, University of Illinois, University of Miami and the University of Pennsylvania. Penn was the only Ivy to score 100, though Princeton had a 95.

In the state of Texas, where lawmakers are seeking to ban transgender representation in school sports, the University of Texas-Austin and Texas Christian University had two of the highest scores in the survey at 95. Baylor University, however, had no points.

The importance of inclusion: Recruiting and retention

College results were all over the place, but those that score high on the athletics side also present a more inviting and welcoming atmosphere for all students.

The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee scored a 90 and has made strong efforts to be more inclusive and protective of LGBTQ+ athletes.

“Developing our core values was a collaborative project,” said Kathy Litzau, Senior Associate Director of Athletics at UW-Milwaukee. “We kept thinking, these aren’t just words – we want to live this. We want to make sure LGBTQ+ students know and staff are confirming that all are welcome here.”

Many institutions don’t see huge financial windfalls from athletics unless they win big – a national football title, a huge run into the Final Four or simply big brands that dominate college football – but they may be able to make a difference in recruitment of athletes depending on how open and accepting they are of LGBTQ+ students.

“I was the first trans kid on my wrestling team,” said high school junior Aryn Bucci-Mooney. “Having a resource like the AEI that lets me know if coaches and teams are inclusive, that this is even on their radar, is so important. I don’t think I’d be comfortable going to a school if they weren’t thinking of inclusion.”

If colleges and universities are thinking about an adjustment of policies or being more inclusive, they can turn to a number of resources from the NCAA or simply look at the categories listed by Athlete Ally and make changes.

It notes these potential questions from their report that can help institutions’ athletic departments. Does your university …

  • Have an accessible nondiscrimination statement?
  • Have a publicly accessible trans inclusion policy? A publicly accessible sexual misconduct policy?
  • Have public LGBTQ+ inclusive fan code of conduct?
  • Provide LGBTQ+ educational resources?
  • Partner with their campus LGBTQ+ center?
  • Offer LGBTQ+ training to athletics staff?
  • Offer LGBTQ+ training to student-athletes?