Just as every sports legend has someone in their past to whom they once turned for help — to build them up, to lend a hand, to train their bodies beyond what the average human can endure — starting today, out LGBT athletes and coaches will have a new resource to help level the playing field.
The Sports Equality Foundation — aimed at providing support and encouragement to LGBT athletes, coaches and team leaders — launches today.
“Sports is an important key to unlocking hearts and minds in our shifting culture,” said board co-chair Kathleen Hatch, past president of NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation, in a statement.
“The coming-out cycle advances itself and drives that broader cultural change. We have a deep belief in the incredible power of the individual and what coming out means in the sports world. If we change sports culture, we change popular culture.”
“We are focusing our work on the power of coming out to change sports. Coming out changes people’s hearts and minds like nothing else,” out UCLA softball coach and board member Kirk Walker tells The Advocate.
Born of Ben Cohen’s StandUp Foundation, which focused on antibullying work in its five year struggle for equality, those behind the Sports Equality Foundation say this nonprofit is more than just a new name on the old 501c3.
“The foundation is going through a rebranding,” Walker says.
“Sports Equality Foundation is refining its focus to support and guide athletes, coaches and sports leaders through the coming out experience and into new lives as role models to lead change,” said Patrick Davis in a statement. He is co-chair of the foundation board and cofounder of StandUp with Cohen.
“We have heard from countless athletes and coaches that there is a powerful need for stronger support around the coming-out process in sports, and that coming out is what drives change. The foundation will fuel that process, and give those who may suffer from bullying role models to look up to. It’s a natural evolution to solving the problem.”
Today’s announcement by the foundation revealed some prominent names alongside Davis, Hatch and Walker’s in managing its initial $100,000 commitment to individuals who take the bold step and become leaders in the LGBT sports community.
The advisory board includes Major League Baseball’s vice president for social responsibility and inclusion, out retired player Billy Bean; the public relations maestro dubbed the “gay guru” by NPR, Howard Bragman; the first out player in professional sports, retired NBA player Jason Collins; out transgender ESPN journalist and GLAAD board member Christina Kahrl; college football’s first out player Conner Mertens, and out Pennsylvania state lawmaker and congressional candidate Brian Sims.
“My father was homophobic, he was antigay before I came out. And I came out to him when I did because he was telling me antigay jokes over the phone.,” Zeigler tells The Advocate.
“He did not take it well. Over the next two years, as he came to grips with me being gay, he went from a homophobe to an elected official in his hometown where he lived for 50 years, championing gay equality.
“None of that would have ever happened with training sessions or speakers, or people telling him that gay people are okay. It only happened because I came out. We hear this over and over and over again: people’s hearts and minds are changed when people they know come out.”
Walker echoed Zeigler’s statement.
“We will not change hearts and minds of people just by legislative or policy changes,” says Walker. “The way to change hearts and minds of individuals, it’s when you know of somebody or care about somebody, or somebody you respect or appreciate.”
When Walker came out to his team in 2005, he tells The Advocate he had no idea he was such a pioneer. He did it to protect his players, he says, who might have learned he and his partner were adopting a baby and he wanted them to hear it from him.
“When I was told by the media I was the first publicly out coach in any sport, I said, ‘No, there’s a ton of women who are my peers.’
“And they said, ‘Like who?’ And I thought for a moment and I said, ‘I guess I can’t say.’” Walker says the fear of negative consequences kept many of his colleagues closeted.
“We’ve got a lot of coaches who are comfortable in themselves being out privately but very, very few who are comfortable taking a public position or making a public announcement.”
“From the coaching perspective, there is a lot of work to be done not only to create a positive environment in athletic performance for job safety but also just for the visibility to create a more positive environment in sports in general.”
Walker and Zeigler point to Bryant University's assistant coach Chris Burns, Connecticut Sun coach Curt Miller, UMass guard Derrick Gordon, the L.A. Galaxy's Robbie Rogers, and triathlete Chris Mosier for paving the way forward. What they hope to accomplish is to help these out athletes and others do the work that will open doors for closeted athletes.
“The energy of this board and these individuals who have come together here as the Sports Equality Foundation, we’re really passionate about saying it," says Walker. "People, and their individual stories, are going to change culture in sport, in those teams, and in the locker room but also beyond, in the culture and in society.”
Read more about the foundation on Facebook.