Special Interest Phenomena
Connor Griffin wondered if he’d feel like a fish out of water as a gay athlete at a Catholic college. Instead, the freshman swimmer quickly found a home in the chlorinated waters of Fordham University’s pool and the catholic attitude of its student body.
Catholic, in its lowercase iteration, means broadminded — and Griffin says he found immediate acceptance when he came out to his new teammates on arrival last summer. Then, when he came out publicly months later, he garnered online support from many others he’d never met.
“People want to tell me I’m brave,” Griffin tells USA TODAY Sports. “Coming out as gay isn’t brave, or shouldn’t be. I was born this way. I didn’t choose it. People choose to enlist in the Army. That’s brave. Coming out should just be normal and not a big deal.”
Except that it is a big deal at many religiously affiliated colleges that see homosexuality as a sin — and that have codes of conduct banning same-sex relations. Freedom of religion allows such schools to operate under their own precepts and beliefs, but gay rights advocates say that doesn’t mean the NCAA must allow membership to schools that enforce these kinds of codes.
“The association is this fascinating, complex entity that has universities and colleges that cover the political spectrum, many of which have religious affiliations,” NCAA president Mark Emmert says. “The association entrusts its board of governors, a group of mostly university presidents, to establish the core principles and values by which they want to conduct college sports.”
Kansas State president Kirk Schulz, outgoing chair of the board of governors, thinks the issue of rights for LGBT athletes at religious schools may be one on which “the NCAA does need to take some stands. But we can’t just do it without some robust internal discussions.”
Freedom of religion is an American value. So is freedom from discrimination. These values clash in so-called religious freedom laws in states such as North Carolina and Mississippi. The same tensions in the broader culture are also found in NCAA core values: One promises “an inclusive culture that fosters equitable participation” for all athletes — and another “respect for institutional and philosophical differences.” The question is how the NCAA balances these values when they conflict.
NCAA director of inclusion Amy Wilson said her organization respects the differing views of its diverse membership while also working with them to promote respect for all athletes. “If an issue arises, we don’t call a school and say, ‘Hey, change your policy,’ ” she says. “We will call a school and try to have an open dialogue.”
That’s not good enough for Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com. “The NCAA wouldn’t tolerate a no-blacks, racist policy,” he says, “but it has no problem tolerating a homophobic policy.”
Title IX famously prohibits discrimination based on sex at schools receiving federal funds. Less well known is that in the 1970s Congress wrote into the law limited exceptions for educational institutions controlled by religious organizations. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights grants exemptions to institutions that request it for specific parts of Title IX whose application “would not be consistent with the religious tenets” of such schools. (For example, divinity schools for faiths with no female ministers or priests can exclude women.)
The Education Department said in 2014 that transgender students are protected by Title IX. Since, dozens of religious schools — mostly smaller and lesser known, and none of the schools mentioned in this story — have asked for waivers that allow them to deny admittance to transgender students. And that has turned into a flashpoint for the NCAA.
Recently more than 80 LGBT organizations wrote a letter to the NCAA urging it to divest membership of religiously affiliated schools that ask for such waivers. “These requests,” the letter said, “are directly in conflict with the NCAA’s longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion for all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.”