How to Ensure an Inclusive Environment for Student Athletes and Issues of Sexual Identity

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.
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Recently, college sophomore Conner Mertens became the first college football player in the United States to publicly come out. Conner is the kicker on the Willamette University football team in Oregon. This unprecedented event affects not only the lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) community, but also all colleges and universities regardless of size, division, and level. Why? Because Conner is not alone. Approximately 2 to 5 percent of college athletes are out, and this number will continue to grow as more athletes, both at the collegiate and professional level, continue to come out publicly. Given these statistics, colleges and universities will want to confirm that they are implementing programs that ensure a safe and respectful environment for student athletes.

A recent study showed that over a quarter of LGBTQ student athletes have been harassed or assaulted while playing because of their sexual orientation or gender expression. In light of the heightened sensitivity surrounding LGBTQ issues and the trend of student-athletes coming out, universities and colleges should proactively prepare for how to address situations concerning sexual orientation and gender identity.

Colleges and universities are legally responsible for abiding by state laws, federal laws, and school-wide policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. School athletics personnel are accountable for knowing and enforcing these laws and policies. In the wake of Conner’s public announcement, athletic departments should ensure that they understand all the issues related to LGBTQ student-athletes and the potential areas for discrimination and harassment. This can be done by implementing policies and preparing staff for handling these issues.

Examples of proactive steps athletic departments can take to promote an inclusive and respectful environment are,

  1. Include sexual orientation and gender identity and gender expression in the departmental nondiscrimination policy.
  2. Develop an athletics department policy for the inclusion of transgender athletes on sports teams.
  3. Include information about department policies, legal obligations to LGBT student-athletes, and expectations on conduct on behavior in orientation materials for new coaches and athletic department staff.
  4. Develop an athletic department policy governing negative recruiting that will prevent departments from failing to recruit players because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
  5. Schedule workshops for athletic staff to educate them about their legal obligations towards LGBTQ student-athletes and expectations on their conduct in relation to student-athletes.
  6. Avoid treating LGBTQ student-athletes and coaches as needing special treatment, and instead integrate policies generally applying to all staff and athletes.

Additionally, athletic departments should make resources available to coaches and other athletic staff on how to best handle the situation when student-athletes come out. This preparation should help to prevent or minimize other teammates or coaches from being hostile towards or harassing student-athletes.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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