If You Can Play, You Can Play

On Thursday, November 14th, Northeastern student athletes filled the Blackman Auditorium for what they thought was just another boring event that the athletic director made mandatory. They slowly walked in and sat with their teams while looking at their phones and preparing themselves for what they thought would be the longest hour and a half of their life. Little did they know they would sit through an emotional and eye opening panel discussion by three remarkable athletes with three completely different personal stories.

At the beginning of my co-op, we were told to start thinking about a project that we would like to work on for the next 6 months. At first thought, I had absolutely no idea where to even begin. There are so many social justice issue topics that I find myself interested in, that I couldn’t make up my mind on just one to focus on. One day, after reading an interesting article online about the You Can Play Project and what their founder thinks of the current problems leading up to the Winter Olympic games in Russia, I remembered a panel that they had brought to Northeastern in 2011 and how amazing the turn out was. Particularly, I couldn’t help but remember how it helped one of my closest friends. This friend, very near and dear to my heart, had just come out of the closet to their closest friends at college, and things were still pretty new when they had this event. They were personally struggling with accepting that they were gay as well as fearing how to come out to their teammates and family. After hearing three LGBTQ panelists talk about their personal stories of coming out of the closet and the obstacles they had to face, my friend then started to take a step closer to accepting themselves. Now, two years later, they have grown into one of the strongest, determined and overall most remarkable human beings that have ever come into my life, and I am thankful for that every single day.

The You Can Play Project has a part of their organization called The Invisible Athletes Forum. This forum provides the athletic teams with insight and allows them to learn from some of sports’ most accomplished athletes. The Athletes discuss what it’s like to come out to teammates and family, how their sexual orientation as an athlete has affected their physical and emotional ability (if at all) in competitions, and how being gay in sports has impacted their lives. The panelists during this forum were: Caitlin Cahow, a 2-time Olympic medalist on the USA Women’s Nation ice hockey team, Jose Estevez, a former Boston College XC team member, and Tracey Britton, a former D1 soccer player and former Syracuse University assistant coach. Each one of these panelists had such a different story to tell, that it helped the athletes better understand the message that was trying to be relayed across.

As a current social issue in sports, I thought that if this panel could have done that for my friend, then maybe I could do that for another person and help them take that first step toward acceptance of their sexuality. If I could help someone not have that fear of coming out to their teammates and families, and assure them that they are not alone, then this panel discussion would be important to have at Northeastern. Did I know anything about planning an event? Not in the least. But, with the constant support and guidance from the Sport in Society staff, I was able to make this event happen.

So on November 14th, in Blackman Auditorium, Northeastern athletes walked in expecting the worst. But, when I left the event that night, I heard athletes talking about what they had heard and asking their teammates how they can change and not hurt anyone they don’t know is in the closet. This past week, after the event, I have had numerous coaches and athletes thank me for bringing the You Can Play Project to Northeastern. Not only did they take a lot away from it, but, I think it helped the department as a whole to better understand the challenges athletes can be facing even if you don’t know their struggling.

I believe that sport should be a safe haven for every athlete and that by eliminating locker room fear, negative language and identity oppression, we can begin to create an environment that will ensure equality, respect, and safety for all out athletes, and I hope that this forum helps to start this change for the Northeastern Athletic Department.

MVP applies.

MVP, or Mentors in Violence Prevention, centers around men’s violence against women. We recently had a training with Foundation Year in this curriculum. The 90+ students split up by gender and went into break out groups to talk about the topic of Men’s violence against women. Ricardhy and I worked with the young men, opening dialogue and conversation about this subject. Having the safe space of a single gender group, we started to dive deeper and deeper into what masculinity means.

The day was challenging and filled with differing views and perspectives. We started to see the idea of manhood that these young men were learning from society. This “culture of manhood” that tells men that they need to be dominant, controlling, or strong has been exemplified through the recent Miami Dolphins hazing/bullying case. We often think of bullying as something that occurs between younger boys and teenagers, but through the Richie Incognito case we see that bullying can be in the locker room as well.

“Bullying is a learned behavior. It is when a person or group tries to hurt or control another person in a harmful way and has three defining characteristics. Deliberate – a bully’s intention is to hurt someone. Repeated – a bully often targets the same victim again and again. Power imbalanced – a bully chooses victims he or she perceives as vulnerable” 

If you have been keeping up with the news, you may have heard about the actions that Incognito are accused of. However, regardless of if these allegations are true, we have learned a few alarming things about sports culture. The Miami Dolphins and Incognito have commented on the allegations, saying that this was the culture of the team. Incognito, in an interview, had also commented that this was how his friendship was with Martin.

The sports culture that the Dolphins spoke of may have been to blame for the uncomfortable situation that Martin experienced. This, however, is not an uncommon occurrence. Martin may have been the one to speak up recently, but it is common knowledge that hazing happens on most levels of sports, be it High School, College, or Professional.

It seems as if the topics of manhood that we speak about at MVP is one that can be applied to why these hazing incidents occur, and why young men are victims of it. If this idea of manhood has become the norm, does it make it okay? Are all men expected to act in this way? If we don’t, should we be bullied and hazed until we fit that expectation?

My personal opinion, and my definition of manhood would disagree with the “social norm”. To draw from a recent training I had with middle school students, one of the boys stated that just because you don’t fit the definition set out by society, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a man. And it doesn’t mean that you are a man if you do meet those expectations.

This case has begun to show me the real world application of the trainings we do. Though progress is being made, there is still a lot of work to do. Though this case can be seen as a negative, there have been some positive reactionary elements to it as well. The NBA took the opportunity to remind its players that bullying will not be tolerated. Athletes everywhere will continue to be viewed as role models and leaders, whether they want to or not. Whether its the sports culture, the culture of manhood, or just a personal belief that guides the actions of athletes will inevitably become mindsets and lessons to the young men of society who observe them with a watchful eye. Let’s just hope that it’s positive.

the one night a year…

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The above line is from the movie Mean Girls, one of the more epically quotable movies of our generation, at least in my opinion. With Halloween on a Thursday this year, the typical festivities have been spread out of the past week and into this upcoming weekend. The party atmosphere in the city has been even further amped by the Red Sox World Championship win, with the celebratory parade scheduled for tomorrow. If the city of Boston was looking for an excuse to let loose and have a great time, the past week has given us more than ample opportunity to throw on a costume, a jersey, or both, and hit the streets.

As I’ve been partaking in the dual celebration of Halloween and the World Series win, I keep unconsciously recalling that line from Mean Girls. I’ve also spent the past week partaking in various trainings here at Sport in Society, where the language and meaning behind that quote continue to be a hot discussion topic. In the movie, the main character Cady Heron grows up homeschooled in Africa, and attends a cliché suburban American high school for the first time, unaware of the rituals, standards and intricacies of what she calls “Girl World”.

Towards the beginning of the film, still an outsider, she attends a Halloween party with the popular “mean girls”. Cady thinks Halloween is about dressing up in a scary costume: as she discovers, that’s considered a childish way to view the holiday by high schoolers. She wears an ex-Bride of Dracula costume with fake blood and fangs, while the other girls wear lingerie with animal ears. This contrast prompts Cady to make the above observation about Halloween and “slutty” dressing.

In a previous blog post, I talked about an activity we use during our trainings call The Box. For this exercise, participants come up with the stereotypical looks, careers, emotions, and possessions of the “ideal” man or woman. We write those stereotypes inside the box, then list the words people call anyone who dares step outside that on the outer edge of our box. This is typically separated by gender, with men listing terms for male stereotypes and women doing the same for females. After nearly a year at Sport in Society attending, facilitating and observing trainings with participants of all ages, genders, and races, I have never seen a person who is pleased with their gender stereotype. Or who perfectly fits within that box. Or who enjoys being called hurtful names like gay, slut, bitch, or pussy when they step outside their box.

Instead, every participant has expressed frustration with societal expectations based solely upon their gender, and when the men and women come back together to discuss their separate boxes, they’re both pleasantly surprised to find out that the other group felt upset and constrained by their stereotype. And yet, I think that Cady Heron, fictional character in a Tina Fey movie, absolutely hits the heart of the matter when she makes her statement about Halloween. It’s the only night a woman can experiment with her sexuality or express herself through socially “slutty” clothes, without being judged by other women. We all rightly detest our boxes; no one will ever be all of those fashion and career and mothering and attractive stereotypes, the “perfect” or “ideal” woman.

And yet we still participate in the construction of our own societal prisons; we gender police our fellow women. Every time we see a woman in something deemed “slutty” and then raise our eyebrows, or nudge our friend, or mouth something behind her back, we build our box just a little bit higher. So why? If no one wants the constraint of a little defined stereotype none of us fit into, why do we help build it? A complicated question deserves a complicated answer, and I’m afraid there isn’t room to do it justice in this post. But if we’re all doing it, then we can all stop.

I propose we extend the free pass, that magical, judgment free night of candy and costumes on October 31st. Let’s make it another night, and another, until Mean Girls becomes a beloved cultural reference of that time when we still policed ourselves into a tiny box no one fit. I have faith that as a society we can move beyond the “one night a year” and let people dress, act, think how they want to, without fear of being pushed back into the box.