The Power of Sports

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New Program Aims to Transform  Athletes into LGBTQ Allies

Although society is becoming more accepting of the LGBTQ community, some negative attitudes still linger. In a 2013 survey from the Pew Research Center, which polled members of the LGBTQ community, 43 percent reported being ridiculed at some point in their life, and only 19 percent said they believed there was a high level of acceptance toward the LGBTQ population.

In light of these findings, many groups are working to increase tolerance, advocacy, and acceptance of the LGBTQ community.

Athlete Ally, founded by former college wrestler Hudson Taylor, is one organization dedicated to fighting prejudices by educating college athletes on the importance of equality and teaching them to become leaders of change on their campuses.

The organization has 51 chapters on campuses across the nation, and each chapter includes volunteer student ambassadors who help spread Athlete Ally’s mission to their peers. Through awareness campaigns, programming, and public speaking events, Athlete Ally works toward the equal treatment and acceptance of LGBTQ student-athletes — which is a challenge on many college campuses today.

According to the 2012 Campus Pride LGBTQ National College Athlete Report, 39 percent of LGBTQ athletes surveyed said they have experienced harassment from their peers because of their sexual identity, 25 percent reported being pressured by their coaches and peers to keep quiet about their sexual orientation, and 21 percent said they had been the target of defamatory online attacks.

However, Director of Policy at Athlete Ally Ashland Johnson says there has been a resurgence of athlete activism now that many professional athletes have come out, such as former NFL player Wade Davis and former NBA player Jason Collins. These inspirational acts are what ignited the launch of the organization’s new Sports and Social Justice Leadership (SSJL) program.

“We wanted athletes to know about the rich history of activism,” Johnson says. “We spoke with many diversity [experts] involved in professional sports leagues, and they said it would be helpful if athletes had an understanding of social justice before they went pro, so that’s how we came up with this project.”

Athlete Ally teamed up with Duke University to launch the pilot of the SSJL program in fall 2015. It is a voluntary, academic-yearlong course focused on the history of LGBTQ activism. Students learn about advocacy through workshops and lectures and, at the end of the year, lead a conference to present what they’ve learned.

“It was the perfect [opportunity],” Johnson says. “Duke has a great athletic department and a fantastic diversity center. We were looking for places we could grow activists, and Duke was a great choice.”

Nick Antonicci, assistant director of the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke, says he was thrilled to enter into the partnership with Athlete Ally, as the university has a growing chapter on campus.

“Hudson Taylor had previously come to Duke, and student-athletes really enjoyed him,” Antonicci says. “The Duke chapter of Athlete Ally has grown tremendously in recent years, and the Sports and Social Justice Leadership initiative is a great next step.”

According to Johnson, athletics provides the ideal space for a program such as SSJL.

“Athletes have a lot of influence on campus,” Johnson says. “People sleep outside to get tickets to games, and society views sports as an equalizing space. When people see athletes speaking out for equality, it makes
a difference.”

Ashton Huey, runner for the men’s varsity track and field team at Duke and one of the 20 student-athletes involved in the SSJL pilot program, says that since signing up, he has been sharing what he’s learned with friends and classmates, encouraging them to be allies as well.

“We’ve had discussions about some of the topics covered with members of our team and athletic community to help start a dialogue on many of the issues in the sports community,” Huey says. “Sports is one of the most universal things in the world; it’s important to be as inclusive as possible.”

The first year of the program will wrap up this spring, and both participants and administrators are looking forward to reviewing the results and adapting and expanding the initiative where necessary. Specifically, Johnson is eagerly anticipating the student-led conference — which will be held in March — to see “what students have learned after a year of training and how the program has reshaped them.”

Though the program is still in its early stages, Johnson is preparing for the future. She would like to take the initiative nationwide once Athlete Ally gets enough funding, and she is currently looking for a new school to host next year’s program and conference.

Duke’s involvement is likely to continue, as Antonicci says he hopes to increase the number of students participating.

“I hope to continue building relationships with athletes who … influence change in all areas of their lives,” he says. “We are fortunate to work with athletes whose passions of social justice and sports are equally important and who see no boundaries between the two.”●

Madeline Szrom is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.