The “Billy Graham Rule” & The Female Coach



The Billy Graham rule is a practice among male Protestant Christian leaders, in which they avoid spending time alone with women to whom they are not married. It is named after Billy Graham, the most notable proponent of the practice. It is adopted as a display of integrity and a means of avoiding sexual temptation, but has been criticized as being sexist.



Avoiding alone time with any woman who is not your wife is the general premise of what many call the “Billy Graham Rule.” It assumes that all interactions between men and women carry a sexual component and that any “good” man should avoid this temptation. While it says nothing directly about soccer coaching – or other traditionally male professions – its acceptance has a significant impact on women working in male-dominated fields.

As an example, another coach and I had an event to attend a several hour drive away. As our schedules and roles at the event would be similar, we decided to travel together. We were about an hour into the drive when his wife called. Answering the call, he motioned for me to be silent and indicated that he had told her he would be driving down with another coach, a man. While surprised by his actions, it was not the first time I had had my presence in a group of men, or with one, omitted from a conversation with a wife or girlfriend. I am not sure what bothered me more – that he and his wife thought there was something wrong or taboo about two colleagues driving to an event together. Or that for the rest of the trip I now had to wonder if he somehow thought us driving together meant something more.

I have been coaching for more than twenty years and the idea that if a man and woman spend time together there must something improper going on has impacted me both overtly and in smaller, more subtle ways. For two coaches to grab a coffee, beer or meal after a game, or at an event, is normal. Yet if they are opposite genders this normal and professional activity suddenly takes on a different meaning. For me to work in a field where I am the minority, spending time with someone of the opposite gender is a must. For my male colleges it is not. It is a choice and situation that they can avoid as they can easily go out with just “the guys.”

The summer after my husband and I first began dating, I went off to coach at a soccer camp for several weeks. When we would talk on the phone about our day, evening plans or other people we were working with it was clear that the fact I was only speaking of men made him a little uncomfortable and not sure what to make of it. A few years later when we were out together he was asked almost jokingly – in the slap on the back kind of way – if he was OK with me spending so much time with other men. He gave the best response possible. “I figured out early on that the choice was her working and being out socially with an all-male group or sitting alone in her room. We trust each other and going out with work colleagues and friends is important.” After more than 20 years together he continues to have to give versions of this response. The question comes up most often in social settings where he can find himself the only male “spouse” and must decide whether he stays with me and the men, or with their wives.

Over the years, I have learned that his response is unfortunately not the norm for many. Whether it is the assumption of what time alone with someone of the opposite sex means, entrenched and outdated societal norms or their own personal relationships, I do not know. It is most likely a combination of factors and not unique to coaching. A long-time female friend who has worked as a computer programmer for 25 years often speaks of similar stories. Whatever the field the impact the “Billy Graham Rule” has on the careers of women in male-dominated fields cannot be underestimated. Social settings – whether that means traveling together or sharing a meal or drink – are an essential part of both building relationships and networking.  To discourage interaction between men and women because of gendered expectations and assumptions not only assumes men only think of women in a sexualized way, something I like to think is not true, but puts women in male-dominated fields in an impossible situation and at distinct career disadvantage.

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Bio: Sarah Dwyer-Shick, who played soccer and lacrosse in college, is a passionate supporter of sport-for-all. She relishes the opportunities and experiences soccer has provided her across the U.S. and around the globe. She is always looking for the next adventure that will expand the opportunities in sports, particularly for girls and women.  During 15 years coaching intercollegiate soccer, Sarah coached at each of the three NCAA divisions. She also worked with US Youth Soccer’s Olympic Development Program in Eastern N.Y. for eight years, serving as director of the Girls North program from 2011-2015.

Sarah is currently the Assistant Men’s Coach at Dutchess County Community College (NJCAA) and a premier and goalkeeping coach with Eastern FC a boys-only club based in Westchester, N.Y.
Follow on twitter @sdshick