The You Can Play Project, the advocacy organization that promotes equality in sports for LGBT athletes, Tuesday launched an initiative with the National Football League that will take professional athletes to LGBT youth organizations in an effort to improve prospects for LGBT causes both among youths and the league’s players. The “High Five Initiative,” as it is known, is the first major You Can Play effort under new executive director Wade Davis, a former NFL player who came out as gay after his career was over.
The initiative launched Tuesday when former NFL players Troy Vincent and Dwight Hollinger visited the Hetrick Martin Institute, one of the nation’s oldest LGBT youth organizations, in New York City. Many of the kids at Hetrick Martin are there because they’ve been kicked out of their homes for being LGBT.
Outsports’ Cyd Ziegler has a good run down of why this is so important, even compared to You Can Play’s past efforts. It will give NFL players a chance to learn about the experiences LGBT youth face in their every day lives, from discrimination at home to bullying at school and especially in sports. Vincent leads the NFL’s diversity outreach, and his involvement will allow him to take those experiences back to a league that is trying to become a more open place for gay players, fans, and employees alike. Hearing the stories of the harassment and bullying these youth face could also lead to introspection in the NFL and other leagues around bullying, hazing, and their general locker room cultures that, while not specifically tied to gay athletes, could make gay players more reticent to come out.
At the same time, it will give the LGBT youth who face those problems a chance to meet professional athletes who are serious about helping their causes, and the impact of hearing from prominent members of society can’t be overstated.
Still, it seems like part of the message of the High Five initiative rings a bit hollow given that there are still no out active NFL players. It certainly isn’t You Can Play’s fault that there aren’t any openly gay athletes for them to work with in the four major sports leagues, and it shouldn’t wait on them to come out to help LGBT youth in sports or anywhere else. But while there are plenty of allies in the major leagues, how can they tell LGBT kids that they can play when they haven’t yet proven that themselves?
The leagues are getting closer to that point. Former NBA player Jason Collins came out last year and is still looking for a team, and reports have indicated that the NFL has gotten close to welcoming its first openly gay player. The NFL — and the other leagues too — should be commended for the steps they have taken to become more open and tolerant places for their players, fans, and employees alike, as well as for the efforts they are making (and will hopefully make through the High Five initiative) to reach out to LGBT youth in their communities too. But until these leagues prove and their own gay players (which we know exist) believe that they are ready to live up to the mantra that you can play no matter your sexuality, theimpact of these projects is going to be limited by the fact that LGBT youth can’t look to these leagues and see people like them playing.
The High Five initiative is an excellent endeavor for an organization like You Can Play, and I hope it will be able to partner with athletes in all of the major sports who can help these LGBT youth. The initiative’s biggest impact, though, may be in helping to convince the leagues that they need to be ready for openly gay athletes and that their own LGBT equality efforts would be even more effective if they had gay players to help the cause.