In Tennessee in the 1960s and ’70s, stands were filled when Helen Carroll played basketball. The state was a hotbed for girls’ high school sports. Sure, they had special rules – but cheerleaders cheered, and bands played.
Yet when the Murfreesboro native headed off to Middle Tennessee State University, crowds were much thinner.
Life was lonely in another way too. From high school on – though she did not know the word “lesbian” – Carroll realized she was attracted to women.
She had girlfriends at college, but the relationships were closeted. Carroll and her partners double-dated men to prove to others they were straight. “There was total silence” about sexuality, Carroll says – even with her girlfriends.
She switched majors from physical therapy to psychology, then to recreation and physical education. As part of her graduate school fellowship with Appalachian State University, Carroll coached a junior varsity basketball team.
That hooked her. The excitement, competitiveness and chance to develop not just athletes but “the whole person” set her on a new life path.
Her basketball-coaching career took Carroll to the University of Tennessee at Martin, then Wayne State College in Nebraska (where her office overlooked a cow pasture). She went on a cattle drive with her athletes, and remained in the closet.
At her next stop – the University of North Carolina at Asheville – she lost her first 11 games. But within three years she won a NAIA national championship. That 1984 title remains the only one in the school’s history.
In 1988, Mills College in Oakland, California hired Carroll as athletic director – one of the first women in the nation in that role. That was a defining moment for athletic directors everywhere. For Carroll, the move to the Bay Area changed her life.
In 2002 she left college athletics – where she’d spent over 30 years – to direct the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ new sports project. Walking into her new office in downtown San Francisco was “like jumping off a cliff,” Carroll recalls. “I had a parachute. But I had to pull the right cord.”
She certainly did.
This month, Carroll retires from her groundbreaking career there. She’s taken everything she knew about sports; she’s grown and evolved, educating herself in areas like gender identity, and she has impacted hugely the entire world of LGBT sports.
From the start at NCLR, she approached her new job with the mentality of a coach. “First, we needed a strategy,” Carroll says.
Her goal was to raise the visibility of lesbians in athletics. Carroll did not want anyone else to feel the “oppressive silence” she had as an athlete and coach.
She worked to make sure the word “lesbian” was not used to punish women or strike fear in their hearts. In fact, she wanted everyone – not just lesbians – to “go home, stand in front of the mirror and say the word out loud, without passing out.”
Carroll developed a three-pronged approach. She participated in professional panels and workshops, helping people get to know her as a person. She helped promote visibility in the media. And she urged the NCLR to “take action toward those who flagrantly discriminate, and cause harm.”
For example, in 2010 – when soccer coach Lisa Howe was forced to leave Belmont University after disclosing that she and her partner were having a baby – Carroll sounded the alarm. ESPN picked up the story, and much of Nashville stood behind Howe. (This month, USA Today named Howe it’s Tennessee “Face of Pride.”)
The organization also brought a lawsuit against Rene Portland, the Penn State basketball coach who forbade lesbians from playing on her team, and was outspokenly anti-gay. Portland finally resigned.
Some of Carroll’s work was less visible. She spent more than two years helping a trans athlete feel more comfortable with her coach and athletic director. Those behind-the-scenes efforts paid off, Carroll says: The woman enjoyed “a good college experience, just like anyone else.”
Just a couple of months ago, Carroll explained the importance of trans-inclusive policies to a national group of high school athletic directors. Within days, the executive director of state sports in Hawaii told Carroll they’d adopted said policy. “That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen that done!” she marvels.
Sports leaders – coaches, athletic directors, others in positions of power – still must be educated about LGBT issues, Carroll says. They need to “understand who their athletes are,” just as she learned about all her players, beginning with her earliest coaching jobs.
Through her NCLR work, Helen Carroll has helped set the bar for other individuals and organizations to continue the work. She looks forward to retirement.
Sort of. The afternoon we spoke, she was all set for her first post-retirement gig.
It’s a three-hour seminar on sports management. Including sexuality.