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Passion Plays
Grant Wahl
September 10, 2001
A growing number of coach are falling in love with—and sometimes marrying—athletes they train. Some of these relationships succeed. Others disrupt careers or leave teammates stumbling over hidden obstacles
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September 10, 2001

Passion Plays

A growing number of coach are falling in love with—and sometimes marrying—athletes they train. Some of these relationships succeed. Others disrupt careers or leave teammates stumbling over hidden obstacles

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Although many of these relationships take place between coaches and athletes of consensual age, sports psychologists, academicians and others agree that the issue presents an ethical minefield. Few people would condemn an athlete like Joyner-Kersee, who married her coach, Bob Kersee, in 1986 and credits him with helping her win three Olympic golds thereafter. Yet in other contexts, as the U.S. volleyball case illustrates, such entanglements can be perilous for the principals—and for those around them.

"One, the coach has power over the athletes," says Celia Brackenridge, a British sociology professor and former international lacrosse player who's one of the few academics studying coach-athlete relationships, "and the higher you go in sport, the more pressure there is to conform to whatever the coach says. Two, there are selection concerns, possible favoritism, in sports in which squads are chosen. I've been involved in situations myself as an athlete in which I've seen teams torn apart by jealousies because of what the players thought was going on in a relationship between a coach and an athlete."

While every one of the more than 75 coaches, athletes, sports administrators and academics interviewed by SI for this article affirmed that they've had to confront the issues coach-athlete relationships pose, the subject remains one of sport's biggest taboos. Even two prominent female athletes who are married to their former coaches, soccer players Brandi Chastain and Julie Foudy, refused to comment. "It isn't in my best interest," said Chastain. Said Foudy: "We are staying away from that kind of stuff." To confuse matters further, there are no consistent policies and guidelines among sports regarding what is and isn't proper in coach-athlete relationships (box, page 70).

"Any coach who has been coaching for 10 years and says he never fell in love with an athlete or vice versa is lying," John Leonard, executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA), told The New York Times in 1993, when the ASCA became the first coaches association to adopt a policy forbidding sexual relations between coaches and athletes. Today Leonard is still with the ASCA, and his feelings haven't changed. "My famous quote? I take heat for that all the time," he says. "The fact is, it is true. Nobody in the swimming community tells me it isn't true. They just say that you shouldn't say it."

Sometimes speculation about a coach-athlete relationship is enough to unhinge a team. A few weeks before the end of the 2000 WNBA season, the Detroit Shock convened for a practice at its training facility behind The Palace of Auburn Hills. The Shock had just returned from a West Coast trip, and as the players warmed up, casually stretching, dribbling and shooting free throws, Nancy Lieberman, a Hall of Famer then in her third season as the Shock's general manager and coach, strode into the gym. "I want everyone in the locker room right now!" she shouted. One Detroit player says she'll never forget the look on Lieberman's face. "She was teary, but she seemed angry," the player recalls. "She looked like a madwoman."

The players waited anxiously in the locker room for nearly 10 minutes before Lieberman joined them. She sat in front of a locker, crossed her legs and spoke in a measured tone. "I know that [some] of you have gone to management and said that Anna and I are having a sexual relationship," several players quote Lieberman as having said. Team members couldn't help but glance toward point guard Anna DeForge, a 25-year-old WNBA rookie. "Anna just put her head down," one Detroit veteran says. "After a while, she started crying."

Questions about Lieberman's relationship with DeForge had been percolating among teammates for months as the Shock slogged through a dismal season. Now even those who had ignored the talk had to confront the issue. "If you had a problem with my personal life, you should have come to me, and I would have told you about it," said Lieberman, who during the meeting reminded players that she was married. After a failed attempt to find out which players had complained to senior management, Lieberman, who was in charge of the Shock's personnel decisions, said, "I will be here longer than any of you. Half of you won't be here next year, so you better start playing ball."

Though Detroit president Tom Wilson says Lieberman told him she was not having a relationship with DeForge when he confronted her shortly before the locker room meeting in August—and though both she and DeForge reiterated that denial to SI—more than a half dozen WNBA sources say they felt the team had to question whether the coach and player were crossing the line. Players say Lieberman, 43, and DeForge spent hour after hour together on the road. One witnessed them exchanging hotel room keys, while another spotted Lieberman's car outside DeForge's apartment late one night, incidents DeForge says never happened. "In Sacramento we went out by the [hotel] pool for a workout, and Nancy and Anna were there, swimming and lying by the pool," says former Detroit player Joy Holmes-Harris. "Everyone was, like, 'Come on, give it a rest' "

Lieberman calls the notion that she and DeForge were involved romantically "absolutely false" and says such talk was born of players' petty jealousies and internal team politics. "Sometimes players have a hard time separating playing time from accountability," she says. "If you look at the players who said those things, you'll see that most of them are no longer with the franchise because they didn't produce for other reasons. Coaches and players can be close friends. Pat Riley and Magic Johnson had a great friendship. Shaq and Phil Jackson have a great friendship. Anna is a wonderful person, and I hope I am friends with her until the day I die. [But] I would never jeopardize my profession or my character to be with one of my players."

Lieberman and DeForge confirmed that they shared Lieberman's Troy, Mich., residence for 3� weeks after the 2000 season ended. The reason, both said, was so they could work out together and prepare for an upcoming basketball camp.

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