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Why Brittney Griner Kept Her Sexuality Quiet

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Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury prepares to take a free throw shot against Japan during the preseason WNBA game at US Airways Center in Phoenix, on May 19, 2013.
Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Brittney Griner #42 of the Phoenix Mercury prepares to take a free throw shot against Japan during the preseason WNBA game at US Airways Center in Phoenix, on May 19, 2013.

Brittney Griner, the former Baylor University basketball star who now plays for the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has been open about her sexuality around friends and family since her freshman year of high school. But in an interview with ESPN The Magazine and espnW, Griner says her coaches asked her not to come out publicly during her college playing career. “It was a recruiting thing,” said Griner, who told Sports Illustrated in an interview last month that she was gay. “The coaches thought that if it seemed like they condoned it, people wouldn’t let their kids come play for Baylor.”

“It was more of an unwritten law [to not discuss your sexuality] … it was kind of, like, one of those things, you know, just don’t do it,” Griner told ESPN. “They tried to make it, like, ‘why put your business out on the street like that?'”

(When asked to comment on Griner’s remarks, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey told ESPN, in a statement: “Brittney Griner represented Baylor University proudly on and off the basketball court, and she leaves behind an incredible legacy. I cannot comment on personal matters surrounding any of our student-athletes, but I can tell you Brittney will always be a celebrated member of the Baylor family.”)

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That the Baylor coaching staff would ask Griner to keep quiet isn’t surprising. For starters, ESPN notes that Baylor’s Student Policies and Procedures includes a “Statement on Human Sexuality.” It reads:

Baylor University welcomes all students into a safe and supportive environment in which to discuss and learn about a variety of issues, including those of human sexuality. The University affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God. Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm. Temptations to deviate from this norm include both heterosexual sex outside of marriage and homosexual behavior. It is thus expected that Baylor students will not participate in advocacy groups which promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.

The University encourages students struggling with these issues to avail themselves of opportunities for serious, confidential discussion, and support through the Spiritual Life Office … or through the Baylor University Counseling Center.

Further, a New York Times story from this weekend details how an alum was removed from Baylor’s business school advisory board in 2005 after the school discovered he was gay. “Baylor continues to omit sexual orientation from its nondiscrimination policy,” the Times writes. “More recently, Baylor has refused formal recognition to Sexual Identity forum, a group of L.G.B.T. and ‘questioning’ students.”

But Griner’s story is broader than Baylor, a private Baptist university in Waco, Texas. Homophobia is not uncommon in women’s basketball. For example, former Penn State coach Rene Portland once said “I will not have [lesbians] in my program.” In 2007, she was forced to resign following a discrimination lawsuit from a former player, who said Portland told her she needed to look “more feminine.” (That suit was settled). In 2011, ESPN the Magazine published an investigative report on homophobia in women’s basketball recruiting. “In a survey of more than 50 current and former college players,” ESPN wrote, “55 percent answered ‘true’ when asked if sexual orientation is an underlying topic of conversation with college recruiters.”

If, as Griner says, the Baylor staff asked her to keep her sexuality private in order to maintain a recruiting advantage, such a policy also betrays the so-called “ideals” of college sports. The N.C.A.A. always boasts how its “student-athletes” are more than just jocks — they are afforded an opportunity to get a real education, while playing sports for their school. But isn’t self-expression part of any educational ideal? If Baylor had no “unwritten law” to discuss sexuality, and Griner had chosen to come out early in her college career, wouldn’t she have learned valuable personal and social lessons? Aren’t such lessons the point of college?

Instead, the win-big culture of college sports often stunts such growth. Whether it’s college sports programs tolerating academic cheating, or snooping on the social media accounts of athletes, or dictating an athlete’s decision on whether or not to come out, coaches and administrators are looking out for themselves.

The headline of that New York Times story on Griner was ‘Griner Effect’ May Change the Game at Baylor.” It talked about how Griner’s recent announcement could help increase tolerance and inclusion for gay students on campus. But what if the Baylor basketball team hadn’t told Griner to keep quiet? What if she came out three years ago? Griner could have changed the game already. An opportunity, perhaps, was wasted.

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