Open court 

Trailblazing coach Sherri Murrell confronts homophobia

The official bio of Portland State University women's basketball coach Sherri Murrell ends with, "Murrell and her partner, Rena Shuman, welcomed twins Halle Jane and Rylan Patrick into their family on February 24, 2009." No big deal, except for this: There are 345 women's basketball head coaches in Division I. When Murrell identified herself as gay with that description, she joined exactly no one on the list of coaches who had previously come out.

"It is kind of comical," says the 42-year-old, who brings her Vikings to the University of Montana's Adams Center Thursday night. "Because there are a lot of lesbian coaches in this business."

Even as the country fitfully accepts gay marriage, the sports world lags behind, and not just in men's locker rooms.

"I think there's a tendency to say, 'Well, of course we know there are lesbian coaches and lesbian basketball players,'" says author and academic Pat Griffin, who writes the LGBT Sport Blog. "But the truth is, there's still plenty of homophobia in women's sports, and real reasons why a lot of coaches are afraid to come out. There aren't many people actually in the profession who are willing to try to make a difference."

click to enlarge Sherri Murrell, coach of the Portland State University women’s basketball team, stands out as the only openly gay coach in Division I. The Vikings play the University of Montana at the Adams Center Thursday night. - PHOTO COURTESY OF PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Photo courtesy of Portland State University
  • Sherri Murrell, coach of the Portland State University women’s basketball team, stands out as the only openly gay coach in Division I. The Vikings play the University of Montana at the Adams Center Thursday night.

A former all-West Coast Conference point guard for Pepperdine University, Murrell wasn't always open about her sexuality.

"I have lived [in the closet], and I don't ever want to go back there," she says.

It wasn't until she met Shuman after becoming head coach at Washington State in 2002 that she came out to her parents. Professionally, she still wasn't ready.

"It was fear of the unknown," Murrell says. "Fear of negative recruiting. Fear of job loss. Fear of people treating you differently."

Shuman remembers being at Cougar functions where boosters would try to fix Murrell up with their male relatives. It was an unhappy situation for them both, further complicated by a struggling Cougars team. When Murrell resigned in 2007, it was as much about resetting her personal priorities as anything relating to basketball. How could she continue trying to teach young women to be themselves if she wasn't doing the same?

"The one thing that I always wanted from my coaches was for them to be honest with me," Murrell says. "I made a pact with myself that there was absolutely no way that I was going put my partner or my family in that situation again."

In May 2007, Murrell and Shuman moved to Portland, where both of them are from. They were unemployed, but confident in where—and who—they wanted to be. In what now seems fated, the PSU job opened up weeks later.

For two years, Murrell quietly went about her business as the country's sole openly gay D-1 basketball coach.

"I didn't go into the locker room and say, 'Okay, I'm your new head coach and I'm gay,'" she says. "I just lived my life."

If anybody asked, she told them, but as a coach, she pretty much just talked about coaching. Then, in May 2009, she saw the documentary Training Rules, which tells the story of the homophobic Penn State coach Rene Portland. (The film's title came from Portland's unofficial policy of "no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.") After a former player sued the school—the case was settled out of court—Portland stepped down in 2007.

During the post-screening question-and-answer session, co-director Dee Mosbacher mentioned that as far as she knew, there was not a single "out" lesbian basketball coach in the country. When Mosbacher was told this wasn't so, the audience in the sold-out Portland theater gave Murrell a standing ovation.

"That night made me realize what a big thing it was," she says.

Since then, Murrell has appeared at showings of Training Rules in San Francisco and the Women's Final Four, recorded a bonus feature interview for the DVD, and fielded a barrage of interview requests. During the team's run to the NCAA tournament—they beat Montana State for last year's automatic Big Sky berth—she didn't say yes to all of them, because she wanted the focus to be on the court. But, she says, "I know what I'm doing can open doors for a lot of people."

As for the effect of Murrell's sexual orientation on recruiting, she says colleagues have privately suggested being open is a plus: unscrupulous rivals are better off whispering about coaches who are in the closet. And if a player or their parents care that Murrell's gay, that player probably isn't someone she wants on her squad anyway.

"Sports are about coming together as a team," she says. "Any type of separators—religious separators, ethnic separators, gender separators—doesn't bring cohesiveness."

As for the players themselves, members of a generation that grew up with multiculturalism and Heather Has Two Mommies, they simply don't care.

"I didn't really know that she was the only [out coach]," says senior center Courtney Cremer. "We don't really talk about it. Rena was around from day one, so I feel like from day one we all knew. It feels normal."

Which is just as Murrell wants it as her Vikings try to get back to the Big Dance. By default, Murrell is trying to become the first out coach to win an NCAA tournament game—but really, she just wants to win that game.

"To be able to do that and to be an out coach, that would mean a lot for our sport," she says.

And what would really be a tribute to her trailblazing is when the second openly gay coach wins one.

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