Sherri Murrell is the head coach of Portland State University. As far as we know, she is the only out lesbian or bisexual coach in NCAA Division One Women’s Basketball. Certainly with more than 350 teams there is more than one lesbian coach. But only one is out about it. I sat down and spoke with Sherri Murrell about why that is, especially since she has received no negative repercussions since deciding to be open about her sexual orientation.
Prior to coaching at Portland State (PSU) Sherri Murrell coached at George Fox University and at Washington State University. Sherri is featured in the documentary film “Training Rules” about coach Rene Portland of Penn State who had a policy of “No Drinking, No Drugs and No Lesbians” on her basketball team. The movie Training Rules explores the impact of homophobia on the lives of players at Penn State over the years.
Lesbian Life: Why do you think you’re the only out coach in the NCAA?
I can’t speak for others, but I can speak for myself. There is a fear of the unknown. A fear of job loss, fear of rejection from players, from parents, from boosters. There’s the fear of many different things. So for me, I had to get past the fear of those unknowns and be true to myself. It really has opened up my eyes to the fact that we underestimate people. There’s just an amazing amount of people who are like, “Whatever, Sherri! You’re a coach, that’s what you’ve been hired to do.” Who you are and being true to yourself has no effect to the way you coach, or the way you recruit.
When did you come out?
Coming out, I don’t know that there’s an actual date to it. At Portland State I made a decision. At Washington State, people knew I started dating my partner. It’s a small town, Pullman. When I dated my partner in Pullman people knew, but they were fearful of asking. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that feeling. When I resigned at Washington State, I took about two months off and actually bought a house here in Portland, not knowing where I was going to be. This is hometown for me. Then Portland State called and said they had a surprise opening. I made a conscious decision with my partner that at my next job I’m going to make sure that they’re okay [with me being out.]
A lot of universities have non-discrimination policies, so you think you would feel somewhat protected, yet, still there are not many coaches out. I’m sure on those same campuses, there are history professors that are out and many other employees that are out, why coaching? Why sports?
Well, one of the unknowns is, you may not be fired from your job, but it may ruin your career. There’s a lot of negative recruiting going on right now. There’s big dollars attached to women’s sports now. Negative recruiting is when a coach can’t say enough good about their program that they have to put down another program. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of young women that believe it. I think the negative recruiting is the strongest fear. You may not lose your job because of discrimination, but you may lose your job because all the sudden people are saying, don’t go to that program because coach is a lesbian and then boom the program goes downhill. You lose your job because the program is not successful.
Could we turn that around into positive recruiting? Kids are coming out a lot younger these days, and I’m sure there are some great out ballplayers. Could this be a positive thing for you as far as recruiting is concerned?
Well, for me, I’m just going to go out and get the best ballplayer that fits our academics and so forth. If that happens to be someone that is out, that’s fine. It’s funny, I have a very heterosexual team. I bet there is a lesbian on every single team in the United States. I think someone that looks at our program will say, wow, that’s a coach that is true to herself that is successful. Her programs are successful. She’s not trying to hide behind some homophobic curtain. I check my politics at the door when I show up to work.
Are there programs out there still that have no lesbian policies?
Yeah. Unfortunately. I do know of programs that say we will not tolerate this in our program.
I know you also coached at George Fox and I only know of George Fox because the Soul Force Equality Ride came through because they have policies against homosexuality in their student code of conduct. What was it like for you to be in an environment like that?
Horrible. Well, at the time when I was at George Fox, I was with a guy and so it was fine to sign that code of ethics. I was young too and I didn’t really put deep thought into it. Well, once I started to have a relationship with a woman, it wasn’t right for me.
Is that where you started to come out?
Well, I didn’t really come out chronologically. I dated men and I’ve dated women. I was trying to figure my own self out. I didn’t feel right about being there, so I did leave. That was a big part of the reason. Did I coach lesbians at George Fox University? Yes, I did. That was a difficult process for me because I really enjoyed George Fox University. It was a great place. I have a lot of religious beliefs that coincided with some of the things that they believe, so it was difficult for me.
In the movie Training Rules the women who is the target of the lawsuit isn’t gay. But she is targeted because she looks gay. Is there subtle discrimination against coaches who look gay on the college level?
I don’t know. I would assume, the same for athletes. Someone may look typically gay, but they’re not. Look at our environment. They’re putting swimsuit models on the cover of Sports Illustrated. They’re not putting an incredible athlete who may not look like that. That’s unfortunate. All that stuff spills into homophobia in sports.