On the Bates athletic website on January 21, Batesies saw some familiar student athletes flicker across the screen. After smashing squash balls, diving into pools, and hurling shot-puts, each student then turned to the camera with the same message to say: “If you can play, you can play.”
Bates’ “You Can Play” video is part of an ongoing campaign to raise LGBT awareness and to promote athletic inclusiveness to all gender identities. The campaign actually originated in the NHL when former Toronto Maple Leafs’ general manager Brian Burke and his son Patrick took up the cause of LGBT inclusion to honor Brendan Burke, son to Brian and brother to Patrick, who died in an automobile accident in February of 2010. Brendan played high school hockey but quit his senior year when it became too difficult for him as a closeted gay teenager to put up with locker-room antics and homophobic slurs. In college, Brendan had just found hockey again—this time as student manager to the Miami of Ohio Red hawks—when the accident occurred.
After the NHL aired its first “If You Can Play” video last spring, colleges soon took up the cause. Today over a dozen schools including Northeastern, UCLA, and Princeton have all made similar videos to encourage LGBT students to compete at the collegiate level. Bates was among the first small colleges and the second NESCAC school after Bowdoin to produce a “You Can Play” video. But, as lacrosse coach and instrumental supporter of the program Peter Lasagna joked, while “Bowdoin beat us to it, our [program] is better.” What is more, Bates has a special connection to the cause; Katie Burke, Brendan’s sister, is a Bates alumna and former Bates volleyball player.
According to President Spencer, who spoke in the video, “The You Can Play program represents the extension to Athletics of our core commitment to inclusion, helping to ensure that fans and teammates alike judge our student-athletes and coaches on the effort and commitment they bring to their sport — rather than on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”
Of course, while the “You Can Play Program” is an important step in the ongoing effort to promote athletic inclusion, it is not the first time Bates has implicitly or explicitly recognized LGBT athletes. For example, Keelin Godsey ’06, who remains the most decorated athlete in Bates history with 16 all America awards and two NCAA national championships, came out as transgendered before his senior year.
In addition, as Lasagna and football coach Mark Harriman noted, student athletes at Bates have been involved in more formal LGBT inclusion initiatives in recent years. According to Lasagna, student athletes joined something called the Athlete Ally program—started by LGBT student athlete advocate Hudson Taylor, then a wrestler at the University of Maryland—and administered pledges, signed by athletes, non-athletes, faculty, and staff, promising to promote an inclusive atmosphere to student athletes of all sexual orientations.
Women’s squash player Chloe Mitchell expressed her excitement at Bates’ ongoing mission to include all qualified athletes. It “puts Bates in a good position to recruit players,” she said. “They’ll (LGBT athletes) know they’re accepted here.” Senior Cheri-Ann Parris, another women’s squash player, agreed that this program would help to attract competitive athletes who may have worried that their sexual identifications would exclude them from competition.
Accounting for the steadily increasing inclusiveness at Bates and other schools, football coach Mark Harriman suggested, “Young people are a lot more tolerant than they used to be. I think athletics will follow along with that…the way young people are addressing these issues is a lot better than it was 20 years ago.” Coach Lasagna added that he thinks society as a whole is “moving ahead and evolving.” He emphasized that college age people grew up in a different time and were more “likely to have gone to high school with people who are ‘out.’ ”
But more than an LGBT issue, coaches and players alike stressed a broader message in the “You Can Play” campaign. In coach Lasagna’s words, “The message is respect for everyone…I would hope that it extends to respect for all.” Parris had a similar message: “I think the video really showed that anyone, anyone can play—of any race, class, gender or sexuality. I think that’s a beautiful thing.”