A year in review always risks becoming one of those bragging holiday letters from distant relatives. But, for You Can Play, a look back at 2015 serves to highlight real progress. It was a year in which the push for inclusion and LGBT inclusion saw meaningful change – moving beyond mentioning LGBT rights as a talking point. The work that You Can Play does in sports continues and the fight against homophobia changes. It’s worth pointing out that no openly gay athlete is playing in any of the US’s biggest four leagues. So, there’s still a long way to go toward full comfort with LGBT issues and equality in sports. But, it was a year in which real change happened and awareness grew. From the front offices of Major League Soccer to campuses like the Ohio State University and St. Michael’s College, from the offices of the Canadian Olympic Committee to the Boston College High School, LGBT athletes and allies were being heard. Here, in no particular order, are five events that helped make 2015 a year to remember.
1. 2015 was humbling for the You Can Play Team as a couple of awards made us all realize our very small part in a world of thoughtful, compassionate and dedicated visionaries. The National Education Association’s award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights was given to You Can Play in July for work done to change homophobic culture in high school locker rooms. It’s nice to receive awards, but it feels immeasurably unworthy going on stage immediately following an award to Edith Savage-Jennings, the 90-year-old civil rights icon and confidant of Eleanor Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr. Likewise, the Baltimore judge working to change the lives of young women in her courtroom, the New Mexico man working to help immigrant families, the Montana woman working to change tribal policy, the Washington-based founder of a website chronicling black history, and the Florida woman who cashed in a pension to provide computer training to underprivileged neighborhoods – their company in the NEA awards program showed us that You Can Play is a unique, and tiny, part of a long and historic struggle to make humanity more kind.
The Stuart Scott ENSPIRE Award was presented by ESPN for the first time this year. And, again, it’s difficult not to feel humbled and small being in the same room as ESPN’s other Sports Humanitarian of the Year nominees. As sports fans, everyone at You Can Play is aware of the legacy of courage, determination and fairness left by Scott and receiving an award honoring that legacy is taken seriously. ESPN’s honoring of the work at gang violence prevention by Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the support for women’s athletics provided by the “Like a Girl” campaign, the work on environmental and cancer research issues by former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and his wife, Sue, makes everyone at You Can Play proud to be part of the sports community and glad to have the opportunity to play our role in making sports better. The awards inspire us to do more and follow the examples of those working beside us.
2. Social change became a norm in 2015. In spite of the lack of active, out athletes in major sports, it felt like LGBT role models and their allies in sports were making progress and living lives ways both groundbreaking and normal. The US Supreme Court’s legalization of same sex marriage in June allowed thousands of gay couples to live as equal partners in American society. Soccer star Abby Wambach kissed her wife following the US championship win in the FIFA Women’s World Cup. WNBA star Brittney Griner married her wife (and later had it annulled). And, almost weekly, someone else in sports was coming out from high school and college athletes to pro hockey ref Andrea Barone to NBA ref Bill Kennedy. Then there’s Caitlyn Marie Jenner. While an Olympic gold medal in the men’s decathlon always will part of her life, Jenner’s new life as a woman paved the way for discussions about gender, sports and transgender voices. Her life as a transgender woman became one of the biggest sports stories of the year.
3. The Canadian Football League became just the second league to have each of its teams represented by an ambassador speaking on behalf of LGBT athletes through You Can Play. CFL players Marco Ianuzzi and Canada’s 2013 athlete of the year, Jon Cornish, had led the way for You Can Play. But the CFL’s partnership with You Can Play saw each team’s You Can Play video become a statement of support across Canada. The league’s Montreal Alouettes signed out player Michael Sam – an important first in Canadian sports. And, CFL Commissioner Jeffrey Orridge became the first league leader to take part in a gay rights parade during Toronto’s Pride celebrations.
4. 2015 is the year 12-year-old Braeden Lange became a symbol of the future of LGBT athletes. In an unprecedented show of support, the Langes began an extraordinary year that shows what happens when family, friends and friends-to-be team up to show a gay kid that he and his lacrosse skills make a difference. Braeden’s parents got in touch with longtime You Can Play ambassador Andrew Goldstein, lacrosse’s first out athlete. Goldstein did more than share his story with Braeden, as well as a helmet from Goldstein’s days with Major League Lacrosse’s Long Island Lizards. Soon, after, another out lacrosse player, Nick Welton, helped organize the Courage Game. The Game, intended to showcase the lacrosse community’s support of Braeden and LGBT athletes, became the focus of an ESPN segment. The ESPN story, the Courage Game and the Langes all showed that the sport of lacrosse loves its youngest players – all of them – as much as the players love their game.
5. The NFL became a player in LGBT issues in 2015. When Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted by an NFL team late in 2014, the St. Louis Rams and Dallas Cowboys made sports history by adding Sam to their rosters and managing the story in a dignified, serious way. The Oakland Raiders’ Marcel Reece and one-time San Francisco 49er Vernon Davis had participated in a Bay Area all-star video. But, the New York Giants became the first team in North America’s biggest game to support You Can Play with a multi-faceted program. The Giants became the first with a team-specific video. With the vocal support of owner John Mara, executive vice president Steve Tisch, the team’s front office staff and players, the Giants package included press statements, grant funding and a chance for young LGBT fans to attend a special You Can Play game. And, the Giants hosted You Can Play’s Wade Davis to talk about LGBT issues in the locker room. The Giants’ all-out support for an LGBT-inclusion effort sets an example for teams making a statement about the importance of sports and LGBT athletes and fans.
These are five highlights among hundreds of events, You Can Play videos and fundraisers (from pizza parties to burlesque nights). Each one of these efforts is special. No change happens without the support of those willing to stand up and speak out for equality. You Can Play’s terrific volunteers, staff and supporters often work silently for change. On behalf of the organization and those we want to help, each of those men and women has our sincere thanks.