Jan Trotter met with scores of college recruiters a few years ago when her daughter was a sought-after high school all-American basketball player. Chelsea Trotter, a 6-foot-4 forward from Southern California, had her choice of top programs, but favored Stanford, where Coach Tara VanDerveer had led the Cardinal to two national championships in 16 years and had guided the U.S. Olympic team to a gold medal in the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Several recruiters from other schools, intent on wooing the Brea Olinda High School star away from Stanford, used an approach that prominent women's college basketball figures say is becoming more prevalent: They led Jan Trotter to believe that VanDerveer is gay.
"I heard coaches make comments like: 'We're more like a family at our school than at Stanford,' " Jan Trotter said. "I knew what they meant when they referred to VanDerveer's lifestyle."
As women's college basketball has grown -- attendance for a single season recently passed 9 million -- so too has negative recruiting, a practice previously associated with the men's game. By implying that a rival coach is gay, opposing schools are preying on what Helen Carroll, athletic diversity specialist for the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights, calls the fear of a gay "boogeywoman" who will make their daughters choose a lesbian sexual orientation.
It's difficult to know how often this kind of recruiting tactic occurs. James Nichols, 43, the founder of Team Unique, a District youth-league squad that has sent 20 players to Division I schools, says recruiters discreetly raise the subject of sexual preference. "None of it is on the table," said Nichols, who often helps families navigate the recruiting process. "It's whispered quietly into the ears of parents." But according to Tennessee Coach Pat Summitt, winner of six national championships and a record 802 games, the practice is "at an all-time high."
The NCAA, the governing body for intercollegiate athletics, is studying whether homophobia is a reason for the shrinking number of female coaches, according to Rosie Stallman, the NCAA's director of education outreach. According to figures released by the NCAA, 79 percent of women's basketball head coaches were female in 1977, compared with 63 percent in 2002. For all women's sports, female coaches are at an all-time low, holding only 44 percent of head coaching positions.
"We are looking into whether homophobia is a reason causing women not to go into the coaching profession," Stallman said. "It's a real concern for us."
VanDerveer said she first experienced the tactic almost two decades ago. In 1985, her first year at Stanford after coaching at Ohio State for the previous five, VanDerveer said a recruit told her that someone associated with the Buckeyes program had told her to check into VanDerveer's lifestyle. She discussed the situation with administrators at Ohio State and they denied they were behind it.
One coach said that during the three-week period in September when coaches are allowed to visit the homes of recruits, VanDerveer was "attacked mercilessly" by some of her peers.
And she isn't alone. A coach from a school in the West, who asked for anonymity, said her rivals have used the fact that she is a lesbian against her in the recruiting wars. "I've had doors slammed in my face by players' fathers," the coach said during an interview in October. "I lost a player three weeks ago because of this nonsense."
Said VanDerveer, "It is discouraging for a lot of coaches."
With Chelsea Trotter, the negative recruiting approach didn't work. She eventually signed with Stanford in 2000. But Jan Trotter said the comments initially concerned her. "We heard stories of a coach who ran off with one of her players," Jan Trotter said. "We were concerned about avoiding anything like that."
Planting even the smallest doubt in the mind of a star player's parent can be critical at a time when the competition for the best girls' basketball players has intensified. Jeff Sink, who was Chelsea Trotter's coach at Brea Olinda in Orange County, said "certain college programs are being called gay programs."
Coaches and gay rights activists are among those who believe that the drop in the number of female coaches is because of athletic directors hiring men to avoid the entire issue.
"There's people out there operating under the incorrect assumption that that if they hire male coaches it makes things safer for female players," said Pat Griffin, professor of social justice at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and the author of "Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homophobia in Sports." "My problem is with the assumption, the belief that bringing in the lesbian coach means you're going to have more of a problem. That's just not true."
No federal laws exist that protect homosexuals from job discrimination, Griffin said.
There have been two well-publicized incidents involving female coaches becoming involved with their players: In 1986, a former coach at Northeast Louisiana University in Monroe, La., was accused in a lawsuit of luring a player into a sexual relationship. The case was settled out of court. Four years earlier, Sports Illustrated published a story accusing a former University of South Carolina basketball coach of having a sexual relationship with one of her players. The two sued the magazine, denying that they were ever lovers, but were later jailed for perjury.
Keila Evans, 18, a freshman on Wake Forest University's women's basketball team and a high school all-American player at St. Frances Academy in Baltimore, said she has met players who want to "turn out" heterosexual players and have relationships with them.
"I had to be verbally straight: I'm not gay," said Evans, a 6-3 forward for the Demon Deacons. "Most of the girls who are gay are quiet about it, but others are aggressive."
Griffin, a former college swimming coach, said the overwhelming evidence is that women are much more likely to be sexually harassed or suffer unwanted sexual advances from men after entering college.
"Regardless of sexual gender or orientation, unwanted sexual attention is wrong," Griffin said. "But so is the inaccurate assumption that lesbians pose a greater threat."
Such beliefs are part of the problem with sports in general, says Ceal Barry, women's basketball coach at the University of Colorado.
"Sports is the last place in society where gay bashing is considered acceptable," said Barry, who has coached the Buffaloes for 20 years. "A coach making an ethnic, or religious slur would be fired. But it's okay to call someone a faggot or a dyke. It's disgusting."
In 1991, Rene Portland, Penn State's women's basketball coach, triggered a controversy when it was reported that at the beginning of each season, she warned her squad that she wouldn't tolerate drinking, drugs or lesbians. After a series of protests and demonstrations at the university against Portland, school officials expanded its anti-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation.
In a recent interview, Portland didn't sound as if she has changed her mind about not wanting lesbians on her team.
"I'm going to be honest with you: Penn State has rules and to stay the basketball coach. I follow those rules," said Portland, in her 23th season as coach of the Lady Lions.
Last September, a University of Georgia assistant women's basketball coach told a class of about 20 students that lesbians are unwelcome on the team. Brenda Hill, hired as an assistant by Coach Andy Landers in June, was invited to a class titled Sports and Gender to share her experiences as a former professional basketball player, according to four people in attendance that night.
Midway through the discussion, someone brought up the issue of lesbians in sports. Hill told the class that fellow coaches on Georgia's basketball team adhered to an "unwritten policy" not to offer athletic scholarships to players they believed were homosexual, according to the sources, who requested anonymity. If convinced that the player was a lesbian, they would stop recruiting her.
On Sept. 26, three weeks after making the comments and two weeks after The Washington Post first inquired about her statements, Hill returned to the class unannounced, according to students in the class, and said she had made a mistake: Georgia coaches did not refuse scholarships to lesbian players.
Landers, the Lady Bulldogs' head coach for more than 20 years, also denied that lesbian players are denied scholarships. Hill's statements were the result of a "misunderstanding," said Landers, adding that "homosexuality is not something that Georgia coaches look on favorably or unfavorably.
"We live in the Bible Belt and often times when we are recruiting we get asked two questions that I find hard to answer," Landers said. "First, they ask if our kids attend church. Then they ask if any of our players are gay. We tell them that both are choices we leave to the athletes."
Hill, whose daughter, Tasha Humphrey, is one of the top high school players in Georgia, said she regrets her comments. Asked whether she would mind if her daughter chose to attend a school coached by a lesbian or had players who were gay, Hill said: "I wouldn't care a bit. I was raised with good morals. The things I said in that class were a mistake."
Georgia's response doesn't satisfy Carroll, the athletic diversity specialist.
"Something had to make [Hill] believe that such a policy existed," said Carroll, a former athletic director and coach. "Even if [Landers] didn't say it but someone he hired did, then that person should not be coaching basketball."
Parents have a responsibility to their daughters to learn everything they can about a coach, says Dennis Rainey, president of faith-based FamilyLife, a division of Campus Crusade for Christ dedicated to promoting traditional family values.
"Every parent who sends his son to play for Bobby Knight knows who he's sending his son to play for," said Rainey. "A coach has a significant influence in a player's life. I just interviewed John Wooden for two hours, and I can promise you character does count. To me, as a parent of six children, sexual preference and practice are a reflection of a coach's character. They do matter."
Sink, the high school coach in Orange County, said he is often asked by parents to identify which schools are coached by lesbians. Sexual orientation shouldn't be the only criteria a parent uses to choose a coach, Sink said. He points out that parents must realize that many of their child's college instructors and acquaintances on campus will have different beliefs.
"I can't begrudge a parent from wanting to protect their kids," he said. "But the notion that a coach is a recruiter for a gay lifestyle is ridiculous. Every coach wants one thing and that's to win games. I tell parents who are worried about it, 'Would you stop your kid from taking a class from a Nobel laureate who happened to pursue an alternate lifestyle?' No. You want to be taught by the best."
When asked why he believes parents ask about sexual orientation, Sink declined to answer.
Legally, there is nothing to stop a parent from asking a coach whether he or she is gay, said Griffin.
Negative recruiting is common practice in men's sports. A coach of a men's basketball team is likely to bring up a competing school's poor academic ranking, or shabby weight room or the small number of former players who have made it to the NBA. In "Big Man on Campus," former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson said rival coaches would tell white high school players that if they signed with the Hoyas, they would sit on the bench because Thompson favored black players.
But because so few men's coaches are thought to be gay, Carroll said, the tactic isn't used.
Jan Trotter said she is happy with the decision to have her daughter play for VanDerveer. After playing sparingly in her freshman year, Chelsea Trotter suffered chronic pain in both her knees that forced her to sit out her sophomore season. Jan Trotter said that instead of pressuring Chelsea Trotter to play in pain or trying to pull her scholarship, VanDerveer has been more than patient with Chelsea.
VanDerveer "has been nothing but ethical and good to my daughter," said Jan Trotter. "I think it shows a person's character by how they treat their students when the chips are down."
This season, Trotter is averaging nine points and five rebounds per game and is the 14-1 team's leading reserve.
VanDerveer, 49, says that she believes there is little that can be done to stop negative recruiting. So the Stanford coach, who was elected to the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame last spring, tries to lead a career and life, she says, that will speak for itself.
"You can't change how people think," VanDerveer said. "You can only work hard, show people that you will take care of their children and then do your best to do that."
Maybe that should be all a parent should ask for, said Jan Trotter, who praised VanDerveer's "openmindedness" for allowing an assistant coach, who is a Christian, to pray with team members who choose to join in.
"I don't know for a fact that she's gay," said Trotter. "She has never mentioned her sex life to me. It has never been an issue."