Founded in 2012, the You Can Play Project has been a key force in driving changes in societal behaviors aimed at the eradication of homophobia and transphobia in professional sports. Through social activism and partnerships with numbers professional and amateur sports organizations – led by the National Hockey League upon its foundation – the group founded by former Philadelphia Flyers scout Patrick Burke, and Brian Kitts and Glenn Witman, previously of GForce Sports, has provided guidance and programs to combat the casual homophobia that had been entrenched in sporting circles.
The You Can Play Project was founded in the memory of Brendan Burke, the brother of Patrick and son of former NHL player and General Manager Brian Burke, following his death in a car accident in February 2010. A student manager for the Division I hockey program at the University of Miami (Ohio), Brendan Burke had publicly come out in 2009 with the aim of creating a more inclusive space in the sporting world, work that now continues through the You Can Play Project.
We spoke recently with Glenn Witman, one of the Co-Founders of YCP, to talk about the progress that’s been made in recent years, and where the initiative needs to go next to continue to make sport a more equitable place for players, club staff and executives and fans in the future.
Q: There have been areas of society where the LGBTQ+ Rights movement has made significant progress in the past decades, why do you think the sporting world has been slower to change despite the numerous world-class gay and lesbian athletes that have been at the top of their sports during that time?
Glenn Witman: I understand why the perspective may be that sport is behind some of the social change we have seen lately, but I actually believe we have made really significant change in sport at the grassroots level, pro level and everything in-between. I think what has been slower to happen is out, vocal pro athletes in every sport. Athletes, coaches and referees, fans, front offices and administrations are all making massive strides in their inclusion activities, and I personally feel more welcome around sport than I did 10 years ago when we started our organization. Now, there is lots more work to do, but it has changed from fighting outright homophobia daily to dealing more with use of specific language, more subtle discrimination and dealing with individual actions over organization or sport wide issues.
Q: It’s been 10 years since Canadian soccer player David Testo became the first North American men’s soccer player to come out after the end of his playing career in the USL with the Montreal Impact. How far do you think we’ve come since then, especially given the subsequent coming out announcements from players like current San Diego Loyal SC midfielder Collin Martin?
GW: Our focus as an organization has been on the LGBTQ+ Athlete (or participant) and ensuring they have a safe and enjoyable experience in their sport of choice, but also with the advocates and allies that surround those participants. Like many of us that came out later in life, the fear of repercussions keeps many athletes closeted or less public about their story. The fact that athletes are taking more control of their stories and being more vocal has been amazing for inclusion in sport. I think this speaks to the strength of these athletes but also the amazing allies and advocates that have been vocal about their sport being open to everyone!
Q: How far do we still have to go in that regard?
GW: Until every person – especially young people – feels like sport is not just an option, but a welcoming option to them, our work continues. We all saw the effects of social justice work over the past year but even with heavy focus and interest, change takes time. Organizations like ours are in this for the long term and understand change will take years and decades to be effective and lasting.
Q: What momentum do you believe the USL’s Forever Proud initiative can provide toward creating a more inclusive atmosphere firstly in soccer, but also potentially in other sports?
GW: Speaking of lasting change, the USL and its teams are a great example of how this change comes from sustained effort and focus which pays dividends to the league and the communities around the league. We have been proud to see the USL and teams react quickly to issues that have happened and made inclusion a priority through actions not just words. The best part of the Forever Proud initiative is not what the public sees on a sign at the games, although we love the signage and materials. It is in the commitment of the teams and league to reach new communities using soccer. The LGBTQ community and its allies are a large and active group to access as fans, volunteers, and of course players, coaches and referees. We so appreciate the USL’s efforts to access these communities and work to bring the most current education and resources to bear on this project.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who wants to be an ally to the LGBTQ+ community but doesn’t know where to start?
GW: Speak. I know that sounds simple, but truly speaking up and speaking out is the key to change. When you see the comment come through on the group chat, shut it down. When you hear the fan next to you chanting something they should not, say something. When you see a teammate struggling, offer to listen and support them. Support means many different things but speaking up and out is the best method to supporting our community and any community. This is why the USL’s Forever Proud initiative is so important, and signals their willingness to speak up.
Q: What message would you like to send to LGBTQ+ athletes or those involved in sports reading this?
GW: Athletes, coaches, referees, administrators and fans alike, sport is a home for you. Sharing your story and your sexuality is your personal decision to make, but we want to create a sporting environment that is safe for you and your story to be told. Sport is so important and transformative for those who participate, and until we make it welcome to all, we will keep up this fight and work.
Q: As the You Can Play Project nears 10 years old, have you been happy with the progress the organization has been able to make in making the landscape of the sport more equitable?
GW: That is a tough question. Being the founder of an organization makes this feel like my child, and of course I wish we were further down the road in making this important change in sport. But that said, when I take a step back, I am deeply proud and grateful for the work we have accomplished. We have won an Espy Award, National Education Association Human Rights Award, International Olympic Committee Beyond Borders award and several others. And as much as I appreciate the awards, getting letters and hearing from those we have helped from saving their life to just making them more comfortable in the sport they love is why I keep doing this.
Progress has absolutely been made but I am no less passionate and committed to continue this work for the next 10 years and beyond, so our kids and grandkids know sport is for them, no matter who they are or where they come from.
Q: What does it mean to be working with multiple sporting organizations, including the USL, with the aim of making the broader sporting culture one that is more accepting and open for all?
GW: Partners are really everything to us and the only way lasting change is made. Our amazing partners range from pro leagues to local youth organizations. They represent traditional sport and now innovative options like e-sports. The one thing they all have in common is that they are not passive in their will to make their sport open to all participants. They understand this is a heart decision because it is absolutely the right thing to do, and also a business decision as more participants and fans equals a better game. They have differing approaches and differing speeds to the goal, but their commitment and voice has been everything to our organization and without the sports’ involvement themselves, we are simply a few folks screaming into the night.
Our partnership with the USL is a perfect example of this, and how a partner not only uses our resource and support but takes these ideas and innovates around them and improves them. We are so thankful for the hard work to make sure “If you can play, you can play!”