In 2014, University of Missouri football player Michael Sam won the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year award, topping off what had been a monstrous season with some individual hardware to show for it. His chances of getting drafted into the NFL and completing his dream of playing at the highest level of the sport were high. But then, overnight, Sam fell a full 70 spots in CBS’s pre-draft rankings for the NFL. Many league insiders doubted that he would get drafted at all. All that had changed was that Sam publicly came out as gay.
Sam did get drafted after all, but in the seventh and final round of the draft, far below where the expectations were for him before he came out. Sam kissed his boyfriend on live television in celebration. He was cut from the team that drafted him, the Rams, after training camp. A year later, he retired from the sport for mental health reasons. If sports had begun to have a narrative as a safe and inclusive space, Sam’s fate squashed it flat. While some young LGBTQ+ athletes saw their dreams dim just a little bit further with this setback, others were taking notice, and were determined to turn sports into a place of inclusivity.
For the past few years, the conversation around inclusion in athletics within collegiate-level sports has been steadily gaining steam. In 2017, the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Division III (D-III) ran an LGBTQ+ inclusion survey. There were over 4,500 respondents, ranging from administrators to student athletes to coaches, about 20% of them identifying as LGBTQ+ themselves. The results, according to Timothy Bussey, assistant director at the Kenyon Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (ODEI), revealed an interesting divide. “Non-LGBTQ+ folks saw themselves as allies and saw themselves as creating a welcoming athletic environment for trans and queer student athletes,” Bussey said. “But the LGBTQ+ respondents — there was a disparity there. They didn’t feel like spaces were always welcoming, or always free from discrimination.”
Another intriguing development from that survey was that allies, or non-LGBTQ+ respondents, felt like they needed more structures in place in order to best help members of the LGBTQ+ athletic community. “Allies to the community that completed the survey wanted more specific action items,” Bussey said. “What’s some stuff I can do? What’s some stuff that I need to know so that we can show and demonstrate that this is a welcoming, inclusive, and equitable environment for our LGBTQ+ student athletes?”
These responses inspired the creation of OneTeam, an NCAA initiative meant to foster a more welcoming and inclusive environment for the LGBTQ+ community in D-III athletics, as well as raise awareness of the issues they face. While the initiative itself does not drastically change the structures in place for LGBTQ+ student athletes, it does make them feel much more secure as members of their respective teams. As Kenyon Director of Athletics, Fitness and Recreation Jill McCartney said, “I think all coaches want to believe that all of their student athletes would come to them, but that’s not always the case, no matter how seemingly open coaches are.” With the OneTeam program in place, which includes training for coaches, it helps create a further sense of comfort. “We have big OneTeam banners, and if you look at almost all of our doors, most coaches and people have OneTeam stickers on our doors,” McCartney said. “So [for] anybody visiting who is part of the LGBTQ community, that will resonate.”
Additionally, OneTeam puts preventative measures in place to make sure that the next generation of Kenyon students do not treat other athletes in a discriminatory way. “You want to be proactive in building a support structure to make sure that when a challenge does arise, you can successfully address it, or you can build a proactive support network so some of those challenge situations don’t even arise in the first place,” Bussey said.
The implementation of One Team starts with the training of coaches, which is split into two, two-and-half-hour segments. The first session opens with what Bussey calls “LGBTQ+ 101,” which establishes a baseline vocabulary and understanding of legal policies for participants. The majority of the training is rooted in working through various common scenarios relating to LGBTQ+ issues in D-III athletics. Coaches are then responsible to take what they have learned to create an LGBTQ+ supportive environment within their own teams or for when opposing teams visit. The plan is that, eventually, all of D-III will have gone through OneTeam, hence the name.
As soon as McCartney heard about the proposal for OneTeam and its need for facilitators, people who could train others in the program at their own campuses, she immediately thought of Bussey. She called the decision to encourage him to apply a “no brainer”: “He’s very proactive about what are things that we can do to help with the student athlete experience, with the student experience on campus, and [with] the LGBTQ community, so this just seemed to make a lot of sense,” she said. After going through the application process, Bussey got the role, making him one of just two OneTeam facilitators in the state of Ohio along with Denison University basketball coach Kayla Hayes. This means that the two of them went to NCAA headquarters for training on how to be a facilitator, allowing them to travel to other schools and spread the program to coaches and athletic administrators there.
Bussey is somewhat unique in his role of facilitator in that he does not directly work in athletics, as most of his fellow facilitators do. That’s why he’s done most of his training with Hayes, allowing them to bring two very different perspectives to each session. For example, Bussey is familiar with LGBTQ+ policies and their inner workings, as well as the successes and failures different measures have had at Kenyon. Hayes might lack that sort of experience working as an administrator, but she is someone who other athletes and coaches can relate to and who has experienced first-hand many athletics-specific issues. “Because we’re coming at it from multiple different angles at that point, having those different sorts of worldviews and insights I think is also helpful too,” Bussey said.
One of the hallmarks of the OneTeam training program is the case studies that are used to give coaches and administrators strategies in various types of situations that can come up within athletic programs regarding the inclusion of LGBTQ+ student athletes. These scenarios tackle all sorts of different subjects but focus on two chief areas: challenging reactions that come across as exclusive and/or negative, and how to provide support to LGBTQ+ student athletes and coaches.
One scenario in the OneTeam training book reads: “The women’s swimming and diving coach is planning a social gathering for the team at her home. She sends out a group text to the team inviting everyone to bring their boyfriends if they wish. You are the assistant coach. Though you do not know if any of the team members are gay, you think the coach’s invitation should be more inclusive. How do you let the coach know what you are thinking?”
This is a situation that might be uncomfortable for some people to confront. It is also a realistic one, and the exact sort of little thing that OneTeam hopes to make commonplace in providing LGBTQ+ athletes with a more welcoming environment. These case studies are also one of the reasons why, according to Bussey, they have received “overwhelmingly positive feedback” about the program. “It’s not a training where you have someone standing at the front of the room talking at you,” he explained. “The bulk of the training is working in small groups and working on specific scenarios of real-world challenges that have happened on D-III schools and on D-III teams.”
Another reason for why the program has been so well received thus far is because of its origins. All of the resources and scenarios that OneTeam uses are based on things that D-III teams had actually stated were issues within their programs. Bussey explains the reasoning behind the program as the NCAA as, “‘Hey, these are the challenges you said you were facing, let’s help you navigate those challenges and address them.’”
One of the aspects of the program that McCartney said has been particularly illuminating for all involved were the legal implications it highlighted, particularly in a state like Ohio that, in many areas, has varying regulations regarding LGBTQ+ rights. The protections in Mount Vernon might be different than those in Gambier, which might be different than those in Columbus. This matters for athletes and coaches who have to travel from place to place and event to event. It also affects the livelihood of some LGBTQ+ coaches at Kenyon. “Let’s say our coaches want to rent a property in Mount Vernon,” McCartney said. “Landlords can refuse to rent to them because of their LGBTQ+ status.” While the program itself cannot change these legal policies, they can at least ensure that athletes will have a safe space when they arrive at their game sites. That’s one of the reasons why doing OneTeam training at fellow Ohio schools is so important. “When our teams go to these schools, we also know that they have had this training and that they understand how to create a more inclusive environment for queer and trans athletes,” Bussey said.
OneTeam was an initiative that came from above in the Athletics office, but that does not mean that students have not been active in helping the LGBTQ+ athletic community. Kenyon features its very own club devoted to the issue, Kenyon Colleges Athletes for Equality (KCAE). Founded in 2013, the club is currently in the process of joining a national organization called Athlete Ally.
“Our goal is to promote inclusivity and acceptance of all people in athletics,” KCAE President Samantha Scali ’20 said. She added that this extends beyond LBGTQ+ identities, though it is their main focus. Both Scali and Vice-President Kathryn Riggs ’20 are not currently involved with any sports teams at Kenyon, but the rest of their members are student athletes. At meetings, they discuss various activities and initiatives that the organization can do and share amongst their various sports teams. The club has grown tremendously over the past couple of years. “My freshmen year we’d struggle to get more than six people sometimes,” said Scali. “Now we consistently get like 20.”
The organization is set up to specifically support LGBTQ+ athletes, but they encourage anyone who cares about equality in sports to come to meetings. “I’m personally not part of the LBGTQ+ community but, by being part of [KCAE], obviously I’m supporting my friends, but I’ve [also] learned so much, personally,” Riggs said. Scali agreed. “I mean, it’s called Athlete Ally,” she said, noting the importance of ally solidarity in amplifying LGBTQ+ voices.
The club has already had a significant impact at Kenyon. A few years ago, they successfully advocated for a gender neutral locker room. Bussey applauded their work, noting that such a space is still rare in college athletics. “A lot of schools with frankly a lot more facility, athletics facilities, and a lot more sort of clout — I’m thinking of especially our D-I schools with their athletics programs — that’s an uncommon thing to have,” he said. “It should be common, but the fact that we have it is really fantastic.”
The students also appreciate how receptive the administration has been with LGBTQ+ initiatives. Getting involved with one OneTeam, which the administration did without any students having to push for its adoption, is an example of this. “It’s kind of cool though that the athletic administration is taking steps on their own,” Riggs said. But for Riggs and the rest of KCAE, OneTeam by itself does not make the rest of their work obsolete. If anything, it only strengthens their platform to push further for their initiatives, knowing that everyone in the athletic department has or will receive OneTeam training and is now more aware of the issues surrounding it, she said.
Considering the strong levels of advocacy from both students and administration, it should hardly come as a surprise that Kenyon rates far ahead of most of its peer institutions when it comes to equity for LGBTQ+ athletes. The school was recently recognized by the LGBTQ+ magazine Prism as one of the five most LGBTQ+ inclusive colleges in the state. “We were on par with schools that have frankly a lot more staffing around those types of initiatives,” Bussey said. After a conference call with other Athlete Ally chapters last semester, Scali echoed this sentiment. “We’re ahead of the game in most things we’ve been doing,” she said with a smile.
A lot of these institutions that Bussey refers to as having more resources to use with regard to LGBTQ+ issues are Division I (D-1) schools. These schools have much larger student populations and generally place a bigger emphasis on athletics than D-III schools do. Michael Sam’s alma mater University of Missouri would be a good example.
However, as of right now OneTeam is strictly a D-III program. The main reason why is simple: They requested it so they provide better support to LGBTQ+ student athletes. “D-I and D-II haven’t asked for it yet and haven’t been as vocal and as active as Division III has with queer and trans intiatives,” said Bussey. “So it’s kind of a special thing for D-III because, talking about advocating for things, D-III has also been advocating for [this] at the institutional level of the NCAA as well.” This creates a sort of paradox, where small liberal arts school like Kenyon that are already very inclusive toward the LGBTQ+ community in general are becoming even more inclusive, whereas those bigger D-I schools with athletes like Sam, who have a larger platform and might even go pro, could stand to have more to gain from this initiative. Yet because D-I has not shown willingness towards adopting OneTeam or a similar program, they will see the problem grow unresolved.
Athletic equity extends beyond simply the LGBTQ+ community. Race and gender are other key ways that athletes have been discriminated against historically and to this day, and, unlike sexuality, they are something that can be more easily seen on the surface. Jackie Robinson’s integration into Major League Baseball or the World-Cup-winning United States Women’s Soccer Team’s public grievances over unequal pay are two prominent examples.
While Title IX ensures gender equity across all collegiate sports, black athletes at Kenyon are still seeking some agency at a predominantly white institution. To this end, Felecia Hamilton, ’22, who is on the Kenyon field hockey team, has begun laying the groundwork for a new student organization, Minority Athletes of Kenyon (MAK). Hamilton was a little surprised a group did not exist in the first place. She originally went to a KCAE meeting as a freshman thinking that the club would be a group for student athletes of color. That moment of realization planted the seed in the back of her mind.
What fully spurred Hamilton to found MAK was a discussion in her sociology class about the normalization of whiteness. “I talked about my experience being the only black person on my field hockey team and how an innate thing I do every time I have a game, or an away game especially, [is that] I count how many black players are on the other team, and I try to be in their lives and wonder if they’re experiencing the same thing I do,” Hamilton said. “It wasn’t really something I realized I did, [for] one, and wasn’t something I realized was different from what other people do, until having that conversation. It was very eye-opening for me.”
Talking to other athletes of color at Kenyon, Hamilton found that they felt the same way. MAK is “a place for us to have a safe space and talk about our experiences as athletes of color but also to work towards things to improve [it],” she said. Hamilton has never felt isolated for her race on the field hockey team — “I don’t know how they are able to recruit such great personalities but, despite everything I am dealing with, like being the only black person on the team, I do still feel welcomed and loved by my teammates, which is really helpful,” she said — but a community of people experiencing things from the same perspective of being an athlete of color still felt necessary.
While MAK is in its infancy right now, Hamilton has some big plans for where the organization can go in the long term. One agenda item is getting involved in recruitment, with athletes of color taking an active role in serving on panels and hosting prospective athletes of color when they visit. “Coming here and playing on a majority white team is maybe a bit intimidating, but being made aware of the fact that there are groups on campus to help navigate that process I think would really help athletes get adjusted and make the decision to come to Kenyon,” she said. In conjunction with this, Hamilton also hopes to eventually tap into the alumni network and get former athletes of color at Kenyon to start a membership program. Of course, in the short term, she just wants to focus on establishing meeting times.
On Transgender Day of Visibility, March 31, Kenyon hosted a talk with Dr. Veronica Ivy, a transgender Track Cyclist who was the first ever openly trans winner of an Olympic event. This talk was originally supposed to be part of that day’s celebration on campus: McCartney said the administration had hoped to partner Ivy’s appearance with OneTeam training for student leaders or a KCAE-sponsored program to increase the impact of Ivy’s visit, but with Kenyon forced to pivot to remote learning due to COVID-19, the talk happened over Zoom.
The central message at the core of Ivy’s presentation was a simple one: “Sports participation is a human right.” This means for anyone, regardless of race or gender or sexuality. Denying people the chance to participate in these events, as Ivy emphasized, would violate their basic rights as a human.
That idea is a big reason why programs like OneTeam and student organizations like KCAE and MAK are formed. For these groups, it is not about simply fighting for their right to play sports, but pushing for an environment where they can be comfortable and feel included when they play. It is one thing to talk about that — as Hamilton says, “I do think that Kenyon does a good job of pushing an inclusivity narrative” — but ultimately, it is up to the administration and advocacy groups like KCAE and MAK to ensure that narrative is realized. And right now, they are off to a strong start to doing so.