Three Years of “If You Can Play, You Can Play”
Some days it feels like we just started.
The three co-founders—Brian, Glenn, and Patrick—in Denver, Colorado. We’d just presented our first Invisible Athlete Forum to a small group of Denver University students. We were G-Force Sports, an elite gay hockey team. Patrick was our guest speaker- our second choice, after John Buccigross couldn’t make it. Patrick spoke with three out athletes: David Farber, Andrew Goldstein, and Brandy Ranshaw. It was new for everyone involved—the athletes in the crowd, the speakers, G-Force, and Patrick. An hour later we were in a bar, relaxing with a beer and discussing what we had done that day. Patrick looked at us and said, “I don’t know if you liked that at all, but that’s exactly what I want to do. You’re stuck with me now.”
From that meeting came more meetings. Thoughts became ideas. Ideas became projects. Projects lead to meetings. Meetings lead to more meetings. And from that evolved a non-profit the likes of which the sports world had never seen. Whether by accident or design, our vision for You Can Play made one message clear to the sports world: You don’t need us to be inclusive.
Non-profit experts told us early on that we needed to protect our brand, we needed to manage how we were perceived, how our message was used, and how our videos looked. We needed tight control over our methods, our talking points, our educational tools. Don’t work with other groups unless you get top billing. That’s how you become the big dogs. Don’t let just anyone speak under your name. Only the co-founders get to speak for you. That’s how you become highly sought after speakers. Take credit for everything LGBT-positive that happens in sports. That’s how you fundraise.
That’s not really us. This isn’t our career. None of us aspire to be famous advocates. We don’t like grandstanding. All three of us are more the “let’s talk about this over a beer” type. It’s quite literally how You Can Play started. It’s how we interviewed our Executive Director, Wade Davis. So when we felt that the sports world needed to have a big conversation about inclusivity, that’s the attitude we wanted to take. A great big meeting over a beer needed to happen, and it needed to happen on a grand scale. Most importantly, it needed to be a conversation people wanted to be a part of.
So we threw our ideas out there. Fundamentally, our idea was simple. We wanted LGBT athletes to know there are lots of people in sports like them – and that there are lots of people in sports who like them. We enlisted professional athletes to kick start conversations about inclusivity, and then we waited to see where those conversations would take us.
They took us to exciting new heights in the NCAA, as the America East Conference took LGBT inclusion in NCAA sports to the next level. Each school’s Student Athlete Advisory Committee made You Can Play their own. They created new mottos, new signs, new videos, and new ways of spreading the word. They held You Can Play nights with each school incorporating the message of inclusion into their own unique traditions. They turned inclusion into a contest, which each school striving to prove they were the community that had most embraced the You Can Play message. America East has since been followed by the North Atlantic Conference and the Big Sky Conference, as entire college conferences race to start discussions about inclusion.
They took us to Canada, where the Canadian Olympic Committee embraced our message with open arms. Partnering with Egale Canada, Canadian Olympic and National team athletes will be going to schools across the nation, sharing their own unique stories of diversity and inclusion with young people who so desperately need to hear our message. This ground breaking, historic announcement was made possible because our methods allow Canadian athletes to make You Can Play their own, tailoring our basic ideas and methods to their own lives.
They took us to the hard conversations with people who speak out against us. There have been many people who have entered into our conversation with hatred, fear, ignorance, self-loathing, or confusion. We have welcomed them all into the conversation. We have listened to them, learned from them. We have found new ways to approach our work by listening to those who oppose us. And, in the meantime, we are constantly creating new friends and allies out of many people who said hateful, hurtful, or ignorant things about the LGBT community.
They took us to Australia, where a You Can Play campaign has taken the Australian sports world by storm, with videos from many of the nation’s top athletes. They took us to Colorado high schools, where the entire state of Colorado embraced our message for all their afterschool activities programs. They took us to religious institutions not always recognized for being LGBT-inclusive, with participation from religious schools Boston College High School, Georgetown, and the University of Notre Dame celebrating inclusion within the Catholic faith. They took us to rural Ontario, where You Can Play helped the Ontario Human Rights Commission ensure fair and equal treatment for transgender hockey players in youth sports.
They took us to over 140 high schools, colleges, conferences, leagues, and international teams that have made You Can Play videos. It has taken us to the WWE NXT training facility, where dozens of future WWE stars expressed their support for their LGBT friends and family. It has taken us through the entire alphabet of sports organizations, to the CWHL, NHL, MLS, AHL, NLL, COC, CFL, NFL, MLB, Rugby Canada, NWSL, and USOC.
They took us to Columbia, Missouri in April 2014, when the University of Missouri wanted to hold diversity seminars on campus for athletes using the You Can Play concepts. None of the co-founders could make it, but of course it was just fine with us if the administration took our ideas, our values, and our model and shared it with their athletes in their own way. After all, who knows what LGBT athlete might need to hear that her athletic department has her back? One of the athletes in the room that day was Michael Sam. Michael left the presentation, found an associate athletic director, and said six words that would change the face of sports forever: “Coach, I know I can play.”
It is impossible to list all the places our open minds, open hearts, and passionate ideas have traveled in three short years. From our homes in New York City and Denver, we have been welcomed in to more places than we could ever visit. We have helped and been helped by too many people to name. On some days, it feels like we’ve been doing this forever.
In Brendan Burke’s coming out article on ESPN.com, he said the following: “Imagine if I was in the opposite situation, with a family that wouldn't accept me, working for a sports team where I knew I couldn't come out because I'd be fired or ostracized. People in that situation deserve to know that they can feel safe, that sports isn't all homophobic and that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are."
There is still work to be done. But, after three years, we believe that Brendan’s idea has come to pass. LGBT people know that they can feel safe, that sports isn’t all homophobic, and that there are plenty of people in sports who accept people for who they are.
After all, if you can play, #YouCanPlay.
--Brian, Glenn, & Patrick