Racial Injustice in Coaching: Similar Events, Different Outcomes (UPDATED)

United States history has taught us it is not new or unusual that blacks are viewed as second class citizens compared to whites; our contemporary realities has informed us that women are not on equal footing as men; and our society has still not come to grips that one’s sexual orientation could be anything other than heterosexual, if that individual is to be positively accepted. What can make matters much worse is when someone possesses any combination of these nonnormative characteristics. For instance, a black female who is also lesbian would be located at the lower rungs of human acceptance in the US, even more illuminated when compared to a white heterosexual male. While there are an abundant number of discriminatory examples in which a combination of race, gender and sexual orientation can lead to detrimental consequences when that mixture is located at the opposite end of what is “normal”, none has been more predominant than the recent “discretionary discipline” handed down to the two coaches at the University of Texas (Austin).

For those who are not familiar with the recent events at UT, let me briefly explain. Although two coaches at UT both had consensual relationships with students at the university, the ramifications of the two incidents proved discriminatory. Bev Kearney, a black lesbian and head female track and field coach, was forced out of her 20-year-long career after admitting her previous relationship with a student-athlete. Major Applewhite, a white heterosexual male and assistant football coach, was only suspended after revealing he had a one-night-stand with a student athletic trainer. What makes matters even more puzzling is consensual relationships between staff and students, according to university policy, are not explicitly prohibited. It can be argued that other factors played a role in this decision such as football being a high-profile revenue-generating sport and track and field being a low-profile sport, and thus sacrifices can be made. However, the obvious double standard, especially when accounting for the success of Kearney (e.g., seven national championships, high student graduate rates, inspiring mentor, International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame inductee), makes this woman’s characteristics (i.e., black, female, lesbian) more of the cause than an inadvertent coincidence.

Being a black woman is already problematic enough in the US, with this group receiving far less access to society’s resources, underrepresented in every major institution, and having to work harder than any other group to make it (see Feagin, 2010), adding lesbian to the mix most definitely muddles things. Although there are few laws in contemporary society that institutionally limit the lives of the LGBT community, Pharr (1997) suggests a restrictively heterosexual and homophobic culture continues to bind these individuals. This is no different in the sport context. For instance, Krane and Barber (2005) found discriminatory hiring practices to exist towards female coaches perceived to be lesbian. Even when these women do make it through the interview process and eventually hired, Griffin (1998) argues the “lesbian stigma” continues to threaten their status and power and contributes to the maintenance of their out-group status. Researchers (e.g., Wright and Clark, 1999) contend that media discourse plays a principal role in perpetuating these inequalities, since they “construct a particular view of the world, of both individuals and social relations” (p. 228).

It is the numerous media outlets discussing the case of these coaches that perpetuate the differences between the two. For instance, in the various media accounts there is no mention of the type of relationship (homosexual or heterosexual) that Applewhite was involved in, but in almost every account Kearney is characterized as a black woman who had a lesbian relationship. Similarly, Applewhite and his family are continually discussed in a positive way through the media, which appears to suggest he has more to lose and we have to give him a chance; whereas outside of her accolades as a UT track and field coach, there is minimal reference of Kearny’s personal life. Just like there are two sets of rules applied in these similar cases, there are two different stories being disseminated to the public. Consequently, the powerful institutions of sport and the media continue to remind us what is most valued in the US: men over women, heterosexual over homosexual, and white over black.

UPDATE: I had several interesting conversations with folks about this blog piece. For the record, these were not contentious conversations, just casual talk with acquaintances. For instance, one person said they liked the post, but thought I should have focused more on Kearney’s race than her sexual orientation. Another said they didn’t believe sexual orientation played a big role in her being viewed negatively; it was primarily her being a woman and black. A third person didn’t think sexual orientation should have been an emphasis on a “racism” blog. I tried telling these folks that every media account highlighted Kearney’s sexual orientation while no mention of Applewhite’s, and thought it was an important inclusion to demonstrate how it may have compounded (on top of race and gender) her negative treatment. I suggested that maybe they should go look up the dozens of media accounts and tell me what they think afterwards… By the way, these were all black folks.

Bibliography and items to read:
*Griffin, P. (1998). Strong women, deep closets. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

*Krane, V., & Barber, H. (2005). Identity tensions in lesbian intercollegiate coaches. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 76, 67-81.

*Pharr, S. (1997). Homophobia: A weapon of sexism. Berkeley, CA: Chardon Press.

*Wright, J., & Clark, G. (1999). Sport, the media and the construction of compulsory heterosexuality: A case study of Women’s Rugby Union. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 34(3), 227-243.


  1. Earl Smith

    While these two cases are a bit more complicated than this, I am glad to see the assessment as mainstream press glossed over the two incidents almost completely.
    Our research on African American women in sports, Title IX etc., addresses the issue of Black female coaching opportunities (lack of opportunities), new barriers with Conference Realignment and other related issues.
    Best wishes,
    Earl Smith
    Wake Forest University

    • Michael Regan

      I, too, tend to lean towards representation, access, and other barriers black women face in sport, which is difficult to ignore since on one of the largest stages of sport (i.e., NCAA Division I) black women are marginally represented as coaches in the sport they dominate as student-athletes (i.e., basketball) and only makeup 0.7% of the athletic director roles (see Lapchick et al., 2011).

      I found the UT story interesting because we rarely see intersectionalities of racial and ethnic minorities in sport outside of race, gender, and class. Sexual orientation appeared to be illuminated on a very large scale, since every media account of the story was sure to not leave it out. It seems the media will tack on any characteristic they can to “black”, in an attempt shine black Americans in a more negative light than they are already in.

      Lapchick, R., Hoff, B., & Kaiser, C. (2011, March 3). The 2010 Racial and gender report card: College sport. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, University of Central Florida: Orlando, Florida.

  2. Joyce

    “Being a black woman is already problematic enough in the US, with this group receiving far less access to society’s resources, underrepresented in every major institution, and having to work harder than any other group to make it (see Feagin, 2010), adding lesbian to the mix most definitely muddles things.”

    I posit people with disabilities have far less access to society’s resources, are much more underrepresented in every major institution, and have to work far harder than any other group to make it.

    • Michael Regan

      This “reality” may be a bit biased, given I tend to focus on racial issues in sport more so. However, when we look at the long and violent history toward black women through slavery and Jim Crow segregation, it’s difficult to argue any group has suffered more in the US. Additionally, when we recognize that women makeup more than 50% of the US population and they are unfairly represented in every major institution (e.g., political, economy, legal, educational, sport), a closer look shows that black women’s numbers are even more distorted than all others. So while focusing on a particular group is most relative to the context of interest, a broader and more in-depth analyses always tends to lean toward racial struggles, and even more so toward women of color.

  3. Joe

    Michael, thanks for the insightful post and followup…. BTW, how are lesbian/gay coaches seen in the sports worlds you are studying these days? Do they face lots of discrimination as actual and potential Black coaches?

  4. Earl Smith

    Very fruitful discussion. But Professor Joe asks what about lesbian/gay transgender etc/., coaches? As Du Bois would respond: ” Nary a Word.” SportsWorld, especially at the intercollegiate level (pro as well) is rife with deep racism and should we be surprised? No. Representation of African American coaches in the two sports at the college level dominated by African American athletes (football, basketball and even track & field) is dismal. But not accidental. Athletic Directors hire coaches. Most AD’s are White men. All of the conference commissioners are White men. Most college presidents that run the institutions at the major sport factories are White men. When African American coaches do get a chance they better win or they are “one & done.” (e.g., Jim Caldwell at Wake Forest). Recycled White coaches is the norm. (especially after losing seasons) Take a look at the pro level this past season several head coaching openings in the NFL and NONE were filled by African Americans even though several of these coaches had BETTER records than the White men hired. What else is there to say? Anyone studying the political economy of racism, especially at the corporate level, knows this and SportsWorld is just another American institution like the other major institutions reflecting the embedded values of the nation state.
    So yes, double standards at Texas, underrepresentation of African American coaches especially in the sports Blacks are allowed to dominante has been an issue since Prof. Harry Edwards alerted us to all this decades ago and it continues to be an issue today, even with a self identified Black man in the White House.
    See my RACE, SPORT & THE AMERICAN DREAM for the analysis someone here asked for.
    Earl Smith
    Wake Forest

  5. Earl Smith

    More…….Because of the stigma against gay, lesbian, transgender people–including athletes and coaches–the discussion has not been wide in that the issues thus far have been small. Several women who coach in college and in the pro sports of basketball, softball have been out. No male, athlete or coach, is out. If you listen to the men who are no longer playing (and now admit to being gay) they all, to a one, note that it would be suicide for a male athlete (college or pro) to be out while still playing. This is why there is hardly a discussion on this very important issue.
    We all know that you don’t dress up to go play sports. But, when you look at the women who play college softball, basketball, less so for soccer, and the players in the WNBA you have to ask why are they all dressed up, as if going to dinner? Image is important on these teams and the script has been rehearsed over & over: wear lip stick, heels, a dress, stockings and you won’t be labeled a lesbian. Nice try.
    All of it is sad and calls for deep analysis of the pressures that gay, lesbian and trans athletes have to cope with to play the games they love.
    Also notice that the other athletes who discriminate against them are hardly punished.
    Earl Smith
    Wake Forest

    • Michael Regan

      You are correct, the discussion on LGBT (people of color) issues in sport has not been wide and under-researched. With sport being such a masculine, heterosexual, white-run space, it would be suicide for an athlete to “come out”, especially if that athlete was one of color. This is especially clear, given how some athletes (e.g., black NFL player Chris Culliver) have openly stressed on a national stage how he would not accept a gay athlete in his locker room. However, the San Francisco 49ers being the first NFL team to reach out to the LGBT community by making a video aimed at stopping LGBT-bullying amongst teens, does signify a first step in a positive direction for change (Lynch, 2012). Or the Baltimore Ravens player, Brendon Ayanbadejo, who has involved himself deeply in the recent discussions on LGBT rights – reaching out to the NFL and media mongols, both television and print (Bruni, 2013). Your statement “the discussion has not been wide in that the issues thus far have been small” is a very accurate statement. Maybe the biggest sport in the US (i.e., NFL) taking this stance is exactly what is needed to change that.

      Bruni, F. (2013, January 22). Carrying a cause to the Super Bowl. Retrieved from http://bruni.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/carrying-a-cause-to-the-super-bowl/.

      Lynch, K. (2012, August 24). 49ers are the first NFL team to create a “It gets better” video. Retrieved from http://blog.sfgate.com/49ers/2012/08/24/49ers-are-the-first-nfl-team-to-create-a-it-gets-better-video/.


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