By Sarah Kogod
What does an athlete look like?
There was a time when the answer to this question was largely homogenous, but today’s athletes have broken every mold and stereotype. They can be tall, short, lean, thick, strong, nimble, brawny, brainy, quick, or deliberate. They are male, female, non-binary, straight, queer, cisgender, transgender, and every other evolving demographic.
They are also younger, and many are in crisis.
Recent research shows that only 24% of LGBTQ youth play sports, compared to 68% of non-LGBTQ youth. The biggest reason cited for lack of LGBTQ sports participation?
Inadequate inclusion policies.
Unfortunately the process for adopting inclusion policies has traditionally been dictated by demand. For instance, a school’s athletic trainer may begin the process of learning how to train a transgender athlete only after an athlete comes out as trans.
But, what if inclusion in athletics wasn’t reactionary?
Institutions need to proactively adopt policies that require their teams work exclusively with medical practitioners, coaches, and staff who have elevated their education and training to meet strict inclusion standards. Sports professionals who want to work with those programs would be incentivized to broaden their training.
Athletes would have access to staff who are educated on the specifics of training trans athletes, and to biomechanists with a modern understanding of how various bodies move within the same activity. They would have specialists who embrace evolving language in order to ask the right questions crucial to accurate injury diagnosis, and practitioners that can balance the science of physical touch with the boundaries of gender dynamics.
Proactive inclusion in athletics would open locker room doors to an entire generation of potential athletes who desperately need sports.
The physical and mental health benefits of organized physical activity are well documented, including the connection to reduced suicide attempt rates. We also know that LGBTQ youth are at least 5 times more likely to attempt suicide than their non-LGBTQ peers. By neglecting to build informed policies and inclusive sports education, we are denying children the right to health and safety.
Those statistics are what drive You Can Play’s work. We partner with athletes, schools, leagues, teams, and governing bodies to educate, build policies and support programs, and provide visibility for LGBTQ youth. Keeping kids connected to sports, both as athletes and spectators, requires a commitment from the entire sports community to not only support this programming, but continue to grow it year after year. We’ve seen the impact, and we’ve heard from the athletes who depend on this work for survival. Our programs make a difference.
We have done so much good, but we have a long way to go. We need clinicians and specialists to introduce this work to more schools, and to push programs to build better policies. We need practitioners to recognize the positive role that safe medical care plays in an LGBTQ athlete’s experience. We need everyone who connects with athletes to understand that the language they use in treatment can lead a young person to either embrace sports for life, or leave them forever.
Sports inclusion policies can no longer be optional or reactionary, they need to be an institutional imperative. Making this work a policy requirement means a safer experience for all athletes. It means a better talent pipeline for major sports programs. It means authentic culture shifts.
And it means saving lives.
Sarah Kogod is a business development specialist who helps brands address inclusion through strategic partnerships, business relationship management, talent development, and culture, She is currently working with the You Can Play Project as an inclusion strategist.