Tuesday, February 4, 2014

We A.R.E. Pride: Leveling the playing field

We A.R.E. Pride / If you can play, you can play.

It started with a dialogue between rivals on the basketball court, but off it they are athletes reaching equality.

Now, seniors Mikayla Lyles of the University of California, Berkeley and Toni Kokenis of Stanford University are standing front and center, together, creating a shared space for inclusion and a conversation about acceptance.

After all, there is no rivalry in equality.

Lyles, a co-captain of her Cal team, who's been writing an insightful blog for espnW.com this season about her life as a student-athlete, isn't afraid to speak out about social change. She and Kokenis, who was forced to give up basketball after suffering a pair of concussions during her three seasons at Stanford, have worked together for the past five months on a series of programs which were held last week on their respective campuses to connect their schools in support of LGBTQ inclusion in sports called We A.R.E. Pride, Athletes Reaching Equality. 

The Cal & Stanford Edition events also included video documentaries and photo galleries featuring candid shots of recent and current Cal and Stanford student-athletes.

A rivalry of equals / This candid shot featuring
Layshia Clarendon, Mikayla Lyles, Toni Kokenis and Avigiel Cohen
was included in a photo gallery of Cal and Stanford athletes.

"In particular, we wanted to focus on bringing awareness to the inequality of LGBTQ inclusion in sports, with the hopes that if we could prove that two student-athletes could spearhead an initiative such as this, then we could inspire communities, cultures, and generations to take the progression of any inequality into their own hands," Lyles and Kokenis wrote in a welcoming letter that was handed out to forum attendees at both the Field Club in Memorial Stadium at UC Berkeley and Burnham Pavilion at Stanford last week.

"As we have taken the necessary steps to put our vision into fruition," their letter continued, "we have been humbled enough to realize that in order to progress any inequality, one must understand that the fight is bigger than the self. ... No war was ever won by battles fought alone."

In the spring of 2012, Kokenis helped found Stanford Athletes and Allies Together (StAAT), a student group dedicated to supporting LGBTQ and allied athletes. Through her association with StAAT, Kokenis initiated a dialogue with her university's athletic department, which led to "You Can Play," a video which featured 28 Stanford athletes, coaches and administrators. Last summer, after she saw Lyles' participation in a Br{ache The Silence public service announcement that featured former Cal star Layshia Clarendon, she contacted Lyles. Soon after, the two decided to work together on We A.R.E. Pride.

Mikayla Lyles has been
outspoken about inclusion
and acceptance in athletics:
"No war was ever won by
battles fought alone."
While both have been vocal activists on their own campuses, Lyles was instrumental in the idea of bringing two rivals together. "Every school has a rival, but that doesn't mean you can't unite on the ground level, wanting to fight for something together," Lyles told espnW.com's Michelle Smith. "We want to start the conversation because in the athletic culture, there's been a lot of silence to this point. It's been extremely silent."

According to Kokenis, silence isn't equal to acceptance. "The only way to make sports more accepting is to talk about it. I feel like we have perfect opportunities as student-athletes at some of the top schools in the country. Athletics still has to catch up with the rest of the world," she said in an espnW.com interview.

Together, Lyles, an interdisciplinary studies major who is straight and calls herself "naturally an ally, naturally inclusive," and Kokenis, a human biology and sociology major who came out to her teammates before her basketball career was cut short, said they wanted to show that the "essence of tradition and rivalry can be more than just a symbol of competition; it can serve as a platform for unity and progress."

"This isn't about making athletes come out, it's about fostering an environment where it doesn't matter," said Kokenis. "We need to deal with it, instead of pretending it doesn't exist."

Lyles and Kokenis enlisted the support of an impressive group of educators and activists for last week's panel and audience Q & A discussions. The panelists at the UC Berkeley event, which I attended with my wife and friends, included: moderator Pat Griffin, a national LGBTQ and athletics educator and activist; Wade Davis, a nationally recognized speaker, educator and former NFL player; Helen Carroll, director of the National Center for Lesbian Right's Sports Project, which aims to ensure that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender players, coaches and administrators receive fair and equal treatment free of discrimination; and Nevin Caple, co-founder of Br{ache the Silence, which advances LGBTQ inclusion in sports through professional and college campus integration initiatives and public awareness campaigns.

Griffin asked the panelists questions about LGBTQ inclusion in sports and other issues touched on racism, religion, sexism and homophobia.

A courage of their convictions / Mikayla Lyles (L) and Toni Kokenis
have worked together to connect their respective schools,
Cal and Stanford, in support of LGBTQ inclusion in sports.

Both Lyles and Kokenis were asked about their reasons for their project, and both were frank and eloquent in speaking out about inclusion. According to Lyles, college athletes have a unique voice that needs and should be spoken louder. "Acceptance can be achieved only through understanding, and understanding can be achieved only when athletes speak up to share their opinions on this important social issue," she said. Adds Kokenis: "Acceptance is acceptance. We can leave a legacy of inclusion."

I'm very proud of the leadership that Mikayla and Toni have shown in speaking out about social change -- inclusion and reaching equality -- in athletics. It was a pleasure to be in the UC Berkeley audience of about 200, which included Lyles' basketball teammates and coaches; many male and female Cal student-athletes, alums, and several UC professors and administrators. Hearing Mikayla and Toni speak out and contribute to a lively discussion of these important issues meant a lot and it showed me not only their leadership qualities, but also a courage of their convictions.

In an e-mail sent to event participants last week, Lyles wrote that the panel members were impressed with the Cal and Stanford communities, "and we have all been inspired to continue using student-athletes and rivals as a platform to really bring people together all over the country. ... It is one of my greatest college and life memories that I will never forget.

"The aura you get in a room when you allow people to be completely themselves makes for an experience of human connections; that is incomparable."

Photographs of Mikayla Lyles and Toni Kokenis by Michael Dickens, 2014. Creative images courtesy of We A.R.E. Portrait Gallery (originals by Mollie McClure of McClure Images).

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