In the Locker Room: Nancy Boutilier
Nancy Boutilier: Oberlin College Visiting Instructor of Rhetoric & Composition and Athletic Director, Oberlin High School. Boutilier has authored pieces about sports, politics, literature and culture. Boutilier’s two poetry collections, According to Her Contours (1992) and On the Eighth Day Adam Slept Alone (2000), were both finalists for the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry. Boutilier played multiple sports at Harvard; she even served as the captain and MVP of the Harvard basketball team her senior year in 1984.
B.A., Harvard/Radcliffe, 1984MK: Recently, John Amaechi became the first NBA player to come out. What took so long?
NB: If you mean what took John so long, I’d say that he came out publicly when and in a way that he could control. If you mean what took an NBA player so long, I could be flip and say he took his strength from Sheryl Swoopes (a WNBA player who came out this past summer), but I think the infrequency with which professional athletes come out has more to do with the real and imagined pressure to conform in the world. The public eye, stereotypes about athletes, the demands of making and staying on a professional team all combine to create walls that some will choose to honor, some will fear and a few will dare to walk through. Coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender can be scary because it is not always clear to the person coming out what the costs or rewards will be. My experience has been that when people do come out on their own terms, they recognize that the rewards often outweigh the costs. Then they wonder, “Why didn’t I do that sooner?”
MK: The response to Amaechi from players, folks in the media, NBA owners has been mixed. From “I hate gay people” by Tim Hardaway to NBA Commissioner David Stern’s “We have a very diverse league. The question at the NBA is always, ‘Have you got game?’ That’s it, end of inquiry.” What is to make of the reaction?
NB: Both are true responses. There is hate in the world. There is diversity in the world. There is also love, acceptance and open-mindedness. All of those things exist in the NBA, too. In the NBA, as in the wider world, I hope love and open-mindedness will prevail.
MK: Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks owner, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram: “From a marketing perspective, if you’re a player who happens to be gay and you want to be incredibly rich, then you should come out, because it would be the best thing that ever happened to you from a marketing and an endorsement perspective. You would be an absolute hero to more Americans than you can ever possibly be as an athlete, and that’ll put money in your pocket.” Do you think Mark Cuban is on to something about the American public?
NB: I don’t know what the “best thing” from a marketing point is. I prefer to look at it from the point of view of what is best for John Amaechi and for the people his story will touch, directly or indirectly. If his book gets Tim Hardaway or the NBA or some kid shooting hoops in Oberlin to rethink their image of manliness or to reconsider their homophobia or to recognize that it takes more courage to stand up and say who you are than it does to trash-talk something you don’t know much about, then this makes him a hero whether it puts money in anyone’s pocket or not.
I do know we live in a culture that gave Monica Lewinsky a talk show, lines Howard Stern’s pockets for his outrageousness and gives 15 minutes of fame to anyone willing to eat worms and be voted off the island. Fame, money, integrity — if the one out of three a person has when all is said and done is integrity, then that is a life well-lived.
MK: Would the gay community rally behind this figure similar to how Martina Navratilova was embraced in tennis?
NB: Yes, I suspect the gay and lesbian community would rally around any active professional athlete who came out publicly. As for Amaechi, from the excerpts of his book that I have read, I’d say the world can rally behind this guy for his vision, his determination, and the life he’s living. He’s all about goal-setting and giving back to society. That he is gay does make him a role model, and he’s willing to embrace that. We need people willing to take the lead.
MK: Would race or gender play a factor in embracing this athlete? For example, would an openly gay black NFL linebacker get the same treatment as an openly gay white shortstop in MLB? What issues are at play here?
NB: Because American sports competition has a long history of exclusion of women and athletes of color, sports have often been viewed as a proving ground or a marking of social milestones. So any “first” in sport carries a variety of significances to different groups in and outside of the sports world. Furthermore, every sport has a place on a gender spectrum that marks contact sports and team sports as “masculine” while the more dance-like sports, like diving and figure skating, which are judged for grace and form sit at the other, more “feminine” end of the spectrum. Girls who play rugby and boys who figure skate are seen differently than boys who play football and girls who do gymnastics. Even by position — linebacker vs. place kicker — athletes know there is a masculinity/femininity point system. The more “masculine” the male athlete, the bigger shock factor in his coming out.
MK: What are the biggest obstacles facing the abolition or reduction of homophobia in athletic culture?
NB: Misogyny, narrow gender stereotyping and fear.
MK: You played multiple sports at Harvard University in the ’80s. Since then, you have been involved at various levels of athletics. What are your observations about the female athletics landscape since your tenure as a student-athlete?
NB: Many things have not changed. Female athletes still have to find a way to embrace their powerful and competitive selves in a world that still sends mixed messages about how a powerful woman “should” behave. Because there is more public acceptance of the idea of the female athlete, the visibility can create the need for gender conformity that I spoke of earlier. Today, female athletes still feel they need to advertise their sex appeal to get fans to watch their games. We never had to do that, because we never expected anyone but our parents and friends to come to our games!
There are fewer women coaching today than in the pre-Title IX days. Though Title IX has been, overall, important for progress and participation, it has dramatically cut women from the coaching ranks for a variety of reasons. In high school, I had four female head coaches and no male coaches. Then in college, I had three female coaches, and one male. All were wonderful in their own ways, but that landscape has changed, for sure. I think if you asked around campus, you’d find very few female student-athletes who had as many female coaches—and, therefore, role models of female athletic leadership—as I had.
Although it’s rarely addressed directly, I think female athletes struggle to accept coaching from female coaches because they have stereotypes of women, even as coaches, as nurturers—which they don’t have as an expectation about male coaches. Our culture still presumes authority in sport to be a male domain. I can’t even really comment on whether boys and young men would struggle to accept a female coach because women are so rarely given that opportunity. People assume that if a male coach has coached boys and men, then he is qualified to coach women in the same sport; but the reverse is not true. Most people would not assume that a woman who has coached girls and woman is automatically qualified to coach boys and men.
MK: Since the inception of Title IX in 1972, how has the identity of women athletes changed or evolved? Are we, as a culture, more willing to accept athletics as a trait embodied in the construction of the female identity?
NB: More willing, yes, but there is still a kind of Astroturf ceiling. Don’t be “too” good, or “too” strong, or “too” committed to sport…is the message girls and women still get. And no one quite knows where that line will be drawn. While coaching at the college level, I have heard male student fans taunt female athletes for being too good by suggesting 1) she must use steroids, 2) she thinks she’s a man and 3) she must be a lesbian. Mariah Burton Nelson has a great book called The Stronger Women Get, The More Men Love Football, and the title is on target. I can’t tell you how often, when a woman reaches some new athletic height, like dunking, that some guy will say to me, “Yeah, but no woman will ever play in the NFL,” as if that somehow proves something.
MK: It does not take a rocket scientist to observe that there is not equality between men and women’s sports at the high school or collegiate level. How do you address bringing greater equality to the current situation?
NB: I wish I could bring fame and money to this equation, Matt, but all I have is my integrity. And I hope that’s enough. And I try to let love and open-mindedness direct my decision-making and my actions.