With her intense sideline demeanor, bright-green blouse and blond-over-dark-roots shag, Portland State women’s basketball coach Sherri Murrell was hard to miss at the 2010 Big Sky championship. After the Vikings beat Montana State, 62-58, cameras for the regional sports network Altitude zoomed in on the 5-foot-8-inch Murrell joining her players for a tearful, huggy celebration, year-old daughter Halle in her arms one moment, son Rylan the next. But despite a TV sports culture where cuts to the coach’s spouse are about as ubiquitous as shots of cheerleaders, what you didn’t see during that victory revel—or at any other point during the game—was Murrell’s partner of eight years, Rena Shuman. “They ask ahead of time, where the players’ parents are and so forth,” says Murrell. “Not once did they ask anything about my partner. I don’t know if that was intentional or not.”
It’s certainly no secret. Murrell’s PSU bio ends with the line, Murrell and her partner, Rena Shuman, welcomed twins Halle Jane and Rylan Patrick into their family on February 24, 2009. In Portland, two lesbian moms are about as novel as a food cart, and you might think the same would be true in women’s college basketball. But here’s the undeniable reality: There are 335 Division I women’s basketball head coaches, both male and female. When Murrell identified herself as gay in her official bio, she joined, well, exactly no one on the list of D-I coaches who had previously come out. Murrell was the list. Murrell is the list.
“It is kind of comical,” says the 43-year-old, a Redmond native. “Even my straight friends, they just laugh with me about it—like, ‘What’s the big deal?’ Because there’s a lot of lesbian coaches in this business.”
Which is exactly why it’s a big deal. Even as the country fitfully accepts gay marriage, certain pockets of the sports world are like throwbacks to the segregated ’60s, and not just in men’s locker rooms. Exhibits A, B, and C: The 2009 documentary Training Rules exposes homophobic former Penn State women’s hoops coach Rene Portland, who maintained a policy of “no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.” Last season the Washington Mystics of the WNBA got rid of its “kiss cam” to avoid showing same-sex lip-locks. And in Louisville, Kentucky, there’s a club team of Division I–bound girls whose coach attempts to steer his players away from “the lesbian and homosexual lifestyle which is so prevalent in woman’s/girl’s athletics.”
“I think there’s a tendency to say, well, of course we know there are lesbian coaches and lesbian basketball players,” says University of Massachusetts Amherst professor emerita Pat Griffin, who keeps track of the issue at her 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.”
What’s more remarkable than Murrell being the only openly gay coach in women’s D-1 basketball is that she’s been out for some time without much media attention—this despite the fact that she’s already arguably the most successful coach in Vikings history, with two 20-win seasons, a 63-34 record overall, and the program’s first-ever Big Sky title. But in women’s basketball, if you’re not the coach of Tennessee or UConn the national press corps barely knows your name, and in Portland the Vikings take a back seat to the Blazers, Ducks, and Beavers. The average Portlander who lines up on a Saturday for Pine State Biscuits at the farmers market probably doesn’t even realize that the humble little hardwood gym just 50 yards away is home to a March Madness–worthy women’s team: last year’s conference championship also meant the program’s first-ever invite to the Big Dance. (The 15th-seeded Viks lost to no. 2 seed Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA tournament.)