Commentary

Stereotypes haunt softball

Updated: October 11, 2010, 11:35 AM ET
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

Lauren Lappin reached the pinnacle of the sport that is her lifelong passion in part by adapting herself to any role required of her on the softball field. She found the peace that fueled that success only after accepting the one role she struggled to embrace away from the diamond.

[+] EnlargeLappin
Courtesy Stephen J. CarreraLauren Lappin, right, with Northwestern coach Kate Drohan, gained valuable experience with the Wildcats.

Her own.

"I'm living my life on a daily basis being me," Lappin said.

Lappin lives a lot of lives in softball. She's a member of the U.S. national team, winning a world championship in 2010 and a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics. She's a professional, playing for the USSSA Pride of National Pro Fastpitch, a league that recently completed its seventh season of continuous operation, with Lappin's Pride winning the title. She's also an aspiring college coach who just completed a two-year stint as an assistant at Northwestern.

She's no less adept at juggling roles on the field. An All-American at Stanford while splitting time between shortstop and catcher during a career that concluded in 2006, she became a jack-of-all-trades and master of most of them for the national team, able to play almost any position and execute a variety of duties at the plate.

"If you looked at the all the things she brings to the table, she's got to be one of the best of all time in our program," said Stanford coach John Rittman, also an assistant with the 2008 Olympic team. "Defensively, she's a kid you can put anywhere on the field. That's what made her so valuable for the Olympic team, she could play a number of positions. And you knew she could play them all at a very high level, which is kind of unheard of in fastpitch softball."

Lappin is also gay, having come out publicly before the 2008 Olympics, a few years after she came to terms with her sexuality and stopped trying to live the role she felt was expected of her in a sport in which external stereotypes fuel an internal insecurity about sexuality and self.

Even on National Coming Out Day, plenty of people will suggest a gay player or coach is a non-story in softball, a sport undeniably linked with lesbian stereotypes in popular culture. How prevalent those stereotypes remain came to the forefront in the recent confirmation process of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, when the circulation of a photo of the unmarried Kagan playing softball set off a round of insinuations and jokes -- complete with smirks, sarcasm and rhetorical winks -- about her sexual orientation. But the truth, particularly at the highest level of the college game in which Lappin circulates, is complicated.

That the International Softball Federation felt compelled to issue a defensive press release at the time titled "Softball References in Media Coverage of Supreme Court Justice Nominee" speaks to how uncomfortable much of the softball community is with its public perception. But the real ramifications of softball stereotypes have less to do with blundering press releases than the uneasy atmosphere of tepid tolerance that left Lappin struggling with her own identity for so long. An atmosphere that almost assuredly leaves countless student-athletes still struggling in self-imposed isolation.

Being gay remains a reason for ostracism and a source of social stigma in many places, as the recent spate of teen suicides all too readily attests. Playing softball makes a person an easy target for profiling within those prejudices, whether merely for comic hyperbole or something more sinister. As a result, softball can itself paradoxically become a breeding ground of intolerance among those on the inside seeking to assert a place within the supposed normalcy of heterosexuality.

"[Being gay] was always talked about in a pretty negative way, I would say," Lappin said of growing up in Southern California, which is to softball what Texas is to high school football. "I never really heard a lot of parents talking about it, but with teammates there were comments made, and I think that contributed to prolonging my ability to come to terms with my sexuality and be open about it. Hearing people talk about gay people or lesbians in a negative connotation was something that was pretty regular throughout high school and even in college.

"Looking back, I think it was more of just the stereotype that all softball players are lesbians had something to do with it -- I think a lot of people either felt the need to defend their sexuality or to figure out other people's sexuality."

Accepting her own sexuality was a slow process in that environment. By Lappin's senior year of high school, she had started to understand that she was attracted to women, but she continued to date men well into her time at Stanford. In her mind, she didn't "look gay" -- didn't fit the omnipresent stereotype.

She wasn't raised to believe that homosexuality was explicitly wrong, but the implicit effect of silence on the issue either way at home was to reinforce the sense that it wasn't normal -- or more precisely, that it was less than normal. As difficult as it was to wrap her mind around what she seemed to be feeling, she couldn't imagine explaining it to her mom or her dad, the latter a high school football coach who also coached her in softball and with whom sports provided a particular bond unique to fathers and daughters.

When she did finally tell Dean Lappin, it was a year after she had told her mother, sister and brother.

"The first year or so after we talked about it, we had our ups and downs with it," Lappin said. "But he never once hesitated to just love me and let me know that I could never disappoint him."

Lappin didn't come out publicly until after she graduated from Stanford, yet she credits the comfort level she had confiding in teammates and the reaction she received in easing her own anxiety. But spend any time around the upper echelons of college softball and you'll hear the whispered stories and unfinished sentences. Programs that operate with de facto bans on gay players, recruiting pitches centered around providing that sort of atmosphere or insinuating that a rival program promotes a gay-friendly culture, and players benched or banished entirely if they come out while in school.

"It would have crushed me," Lappin said of a negative reaction. "I would not be me. I would probably be hiding who I am, or I would be not living my truth. I think that that exists so much still. I mean, the best thing that was done for me was the first few people that I told was gay were open armed, hugged me, told me not to cry, told me to be proud of who I am. … I think that if I had had the opposite reaction, I can't even tell you. It's scary to think of where I would be at as an individual and what my life would be like. I'm happy because I'm living my truth every day."

That is not to say she lacked trepidation in coming out, worried that it might hurt her chances of making the Olympic team or make sponsors wary of using her to endorse their softball gear. And there is little doubt that a coaching career would be easier if she was not out, that now at least a few doors might not open quite as wide as they otherwise would have. Lappin's fame, at least within the sport, is some measure of security of its own. For other athletes contemplating coming out, there is indeed a choice involved. A choice between two parts of themselves, between professional security and personal peace.

"I would say it's better than it was in the past, and I think that we're evolving, for sure, as a sport," Lappin said. "But I don't think it's 100 percent comfortable. I see 'comfortable' as student-athletes being able to tell their teammates or be open about who they are with their teammates. And I see coaches being able to be in a relationship with a partner and bring them to work events. I think that in very minimal pockets of the country, that is accepted and comfortable. But I also think it's more widespread that it's still a pretty uncomfortable issue, or an issue that's not spoken about or just kind of hidden.

"I had an amazing experience [at Northwestern]. I never felt like my sexuality had anything to do with my ability to do my job, and it shouldn't. That's the bottom line. I was in a situation where it didn't matter, it didn't matter what my sexuality was."

For the time being, the job will come on the field. After two seasons on Kate Drohan's staff at Northwestern, she'll take a break from coaching in the college ranks (while still working at camps and clinics) to focus on playing for the Pride and Team USA. But she plans to return to the coaching ranks, a lifelong interest only further fueled by her time in Evanston.

"It's definitely a job you take home with you at night, which I knew because my dad's a coach, my uncle's a coach. I knew how involved you are -- but it's a whole other level, especially in Division I sports," Lappin said. "The day-to-day, I guess I didn't expect to take it home with me as much. I'd come home and at 9 o'clock, during 'Grey's Anatomy' or whatever, be thinking about how can I help [Northwestern outfielder] Kristin Scharkey become a better slapper."

Lappin isn't an issue. She isn't a stereotype. She's a person whose life is as much a story of the sport she loves as the person she loves. That there is so much more to her than her sexuality is precisely why it matters that she came out and continues to stand up for a basic human right that transcends even the LGBT world.

People deserve a chance to be themselves.

"She's just a very dynamic personality," Rittman said. "She's fun to be around; she has fun in life and on the field. She's going to be an outstanding coach, if that's what she decides to do."

It's who Lauren Lappin is each and every day.

Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn.com. Follow him on Twitter: @grahamhays.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.