Northeastern hockey player Kelly Wallace. (photo: courtesy Northeastern University)
The Northeastern University Huskies are taking the lead in making it clear that out athletes are more than welcome
Note: the following story first appeared in the November/December 2012 issue of Boston Spirit magazine.
By Erik Borg
Gay athletes are used to being singled out. When it’s in a good way, it comes as a pleasant surprise. Northeastern Athletics Director Peter Roby recently made it clear just exactly what the athletics department at one of Boston’s largest universities thinks of them:
“If you are a young LGBT athlete looking for a place to play, we invite you to consider Northeastern University,” he proclaimed in a statement echoing support for a student-athlete-led initiative to take a stand on GLBT equality in sports.
His statement, at once bold in its significance and understated in its delivery, is likely the closest any university has come to using a stance of openness and acceptance toward sexual orientation as a tool for recruiting in athletics.
Roby calls it “just doing the right thing.”
In July, more than 50 Northeastern student-athletes, coaches, and administrators came together to film a video for You Can Play, an organization that promotes quality, respect, and safety in sports regardless of sexual orientation. Northeastern’s video was the first by an entire collegiate athletics department and one of more than 20 by professional and collegiate athletes and organizations throughout the United States and Canada. Their message in the video is simple.
“If you can play, you can play,” they say, regardless of sexual orientation.
If it’s a surprise to outsiders that a collegiate athletics department would proactively and publicly rally around such a message, it was no shock to Roby that it was Northeastern.
“We have a fair amount of GLBT athletes, students, and staff, and it just seems a very natural thing to do,” he said. “No one has to be victimized before you decide it’s important.”
It was also a way for the athletics department to live its espoused values, said Roby, who is the former executive director at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, a think-tank at Northeastern that seeks to achieve social change through the power and influence of athletics.
Roby has used the center’s mission to help imbue the Huskies’ athletics department with core values, like the concept of “coach as educator,” the importance of leadership, critical thinking, and community service, and — most relevant to LGBT inclusion — an “appreciation of difference.”
The term “difference,” Roby said, is intentionally used instead of the typical categorical demographics for diversity like sexuality, race, and gender.
“It’s specifically phrased that way because ‘diversity’ is too static. It’s not actionable,” he said. “If you can’t live the way you want to live, it doesn’t matter how diverse you are.”
Northeastern’s You Can Play video was first championed by Sarah Cahill, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, who had two student-athletes come out to her last year.
“It was an important time for them to feel safe,” she said.
The You Can Play video marks a growing partnership with G-Force Sports, an organization that began with a citywide forum last October that drew athletes from multiple sports and neighboring colleges and universities.
After Northeastern hosted a second seminar with G-Force, a You Can Play partner-organization that holds workshops on issues surrounding sports and sexual orientation, Cahill began to approach others in the athletics department she thought would be interested.
From there, the effort snowballed.
“The response I got was unbelievable,” Cahill said. “I really think it says a lot about the culture at Northeastern.”
Mike Zawilinksi, an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Northeastern who also trains Team USA powerlifters, was one of the people recruited to participate.
He said that for many coaches and athletes in the department, including himself, there’s been a shift toward awareness on the issue that has been slowly growing over the past few years.
There were still those who didn’t feel comfortable participating in the video, Cahill said. But even their reluctance became a positive thing, she said, because it began a dialogue.
Roby said Northeastern is quite comfortable being a leader on the issue.
“I think it’s a big need because you perform your best when you’re comfortable in your own skin,” Cahill said. “Hopefully it becomes the norm.” [x]
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