Last spring just after GLSEN launched Changing the Game, our new sports project, I got an email from Edward Tylicki from Nike. Edward is a member of Nike’s LGBT and Friends Network. Edward sought me out as director for the Sports Project because he wanted to know how Nike could support Changing the Game. My initial reactions were complicated. On one hand, getting the support of a huge corporation like Nike was exciting and held enormous possibilities for helping us to get our message of safety, respect and inclusion in K-12 sports and physical education out there in a big way. On the other hand, I worried about what it would mean to accept the support of a company that had been targeted as a participant in taking advantage of “sweatshop” labor in their factories around the world. I have not bought anything with a swoosh on it for years in my own personal attempt to send Nike a message about this.
So, I did some homework. In addition to going to the internet to read more about this, when I finally met Edward at GLSEN’s Respect dinner in May, I asked him to talk about Nike’s current labor policy and practices and about how Nike responds to these criticisms. What I learned is that, over the last 10 years, Nike has taken some significant steps to monitor and correct the problems that labor advocates have been protesting. In addition, Nike has initiated a “better world” campaign to focus on their “eco-conscious, people- and planet-improving goals” and, most importantly, Nike is putting its money where its mouth is.
Specific to LGBT issues, Nike works in collaboration with GLSEN Oregon to bring GSA students from Oregon schools together at the Nike Headquarters for an annual leadership day. In just the last year, the Nike LGBT and Friends group has sponsored several events at their world headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon including talks with straight ally, Ben Cohen and lesbian and gay college coaches, Sherri Murrell and Kirk Walker.
Nike had a strong presence at Portland Pride Day last spring and donated all of the proceeds from the sale of their pride tee shirts to Changing the Game – 18K, to be exact – an amazing demonstration of support for GLSEN and Changing the Game.
So when Edward asked me to participate on a National Coming Out Week event at Nike headquarters on Thursday, October 13 focused on straight allies and their role in making a sports great place for LGBT participants, I was more than excited to say yes.
In addition to me, representing GLSEN and Changing the Game, Nike also invited straight allies Hudson Taylor of Athlete Ally and Jessica Mendoza, a two time Olympic gold medalist and professional softball player. Hudson also serves on the Changing the Game Advisory Group and Jessica is a Changing the Game All-Star. When we arrived at the Nike campus, we were greeted by a wonderful exhibit of statements on larger colorful posters throughout the Nike complex of buildings. Some posters described what an ally is. Other posters were quotes from Nike executives about what being an ally means to them personally. A TV monitor ran a continuous loop of Hudson, Ben Cohen and me talking about the importance of making sports safe and respectful for LGBT participants.
After an impressive tour of Nike Headquarters, Hudson, Jessica and I did a lunch time talk about straight allies for about 50 Nike employees. Hudson and Jessica talked about how they came to be straight allies and told some personal stories about their experiences. As a lesbian athlete, coach and advocate, I talked about the important roles that straight allies play in eliminating homophobia and transphobia in sport and what straight allies can do to be most effective. We fielded some great questions from the group and enjoyed a great sense of support and interest from the Nike folks who came to hear us speak.
I have to say that for a veteran LGBT sports advocate who has been doing this work for over 30 years, it was an amazing experience to listen to Hudson and Jessica speak with such passion and commitment about their commitment to LGBT inclusion in and out of sport. It bodes well for the future that young straight allies like Hudson and Jessica are providing athletes and coaches with such terrific examples of how to be a straight ally. As I said at the panel, no social justice movement is ever successful without the participation of allies. Whether we are talking about racial equality, women’s equality, the disability rights or any other social justice movement , informed and committed allies fighting shoulder to shoulder with the people who are targeted by injustice make a huge positive difference.
We found out that, in a coincidence of scheduling, Kobe Bryant was also on the Nike campus that day. Our paths did not cross, but Edward gave one of Nike’s ally tee shirts to Kobe’s representative and expressed hope that Kobe would join Nike’s efforts to make sports a better place for LGBT people. You never know. The seeds of change can be planted in all kinds of different places.
Later that afternoon Nike hosted a community reception and invited several LGBT community advocacy groups from the Portland area: GLSEN Oregon, HRC and PFLAG, to name a few. Hudson, Jessica and I again spoke to the group of about 125 people. As part of the event, Edward gave me a check for the proceeds of the Nike Pride tee shirts in support of Changing the Game. We also announced that Nike has awarded a 14K Community Grant to GLSEN Oregon to support training for Portland area K-12 coaches and physical education teachers to be led by Changing the Game in collaboration with GLSEN Oregon. The training, which will occur in the spring, will focus on providing coaches and teachers with information and best practices for how to ensure that their teams and classes are safe and inclusive for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities/expressions.
Throughout the day we were greeted by and talked with Nike employees and leaders who expressed support and genuine commitment to making the sports world a better place for LGBT people. We talked about the ways that Nike is already taking a leadership role in supporting the efforts of LGBT sports advocates and the ways they can take an even more powerful and visible role in the future. The possibilities are amazing. At the end of the day, as I walked back to my hotel room in my new Nike Pride sneakers, I felt that LGBT sports advocates everywhere have a new super star member of our team. I kept thinking of this tee shirt that said, “Respect. Just Do It.”