By ROBERT KLEMKO
Hudson Taylor, a former University of Maryland wrestler and current Columbia University assistant wrestling coach, saw the need in 2010 for a social advocacy group pushing for LGBT equality in sports. He founded Athlete Ally, a nonprofit organization focused on ending homophobia and transphobia in sports, three years ago.
We caught up with Taylor and got his thoughts on the success of the organization and the future for out professional athletes.
ROBERT KLEMKO: When did Athlete Ally explode from your part-time pursuit to this nationally recognized organization?
HUDSON TAYLOR: We started Athlete Ally in August 2010. The first year-and-a-half to two years was pretty slow. We were growing at the college level quite a bit. But the real expansion came when Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo came on and we started getting more athletes getting involved last fall. After him, more and more athletes started lending their voice to LGBT acceptance in sports. In the NFL, Scott Fujita and Chris Kluwe came shortly after. Those are obviously three prominent voices in the NFL and for LGBT acceptance in sports.
KLEMKO: Did you recruit these guys, or did they come to you?
TAYLOR: We recruited the majority of the athletes we work with. We adopted a shotgun approach: If we have an athlete who speaks out for marriage equality or they have a relative who’s gay, we reach out and say ‘Are you interested in getting involved?’ For all the guys who’ve signed up we’ve gotten probably triple the amount of nos. We also got a ton of our athletes from Maryland connections; Kristi Tolliver, Robbie Rogers and D’Qwell Jackson included.
KLEMKO: Do you have a staff?
TAYLOR: Our board is very much a working board. We have 13 board members who are almost full time working on Athlete Ally. We’ve been very fortunate to have a very dedicated board. Then we have five interns and two college graduates that we’ve just hired, and we’ll be hiring more. What we’ve found is there are a lot of college kids who are eager to get involved.
KLEMKO: You went from recruiting the voices to becoming an authority on the topic. What’s the next step?
TAYLOR: When all of this started, I realized there’s never been a successful social advocacy group for the minority without the majority support. We knew we needed the voices. Now our next phase is really trending down to the K-12 age group. We’ve become the official partners of the NBA, working with their incoming players, and we have great reach in college, but the cycle starts far sooner than college. So when we think about these attitudes we need to start educating when they first pick up a baseball or a football.
KLEMKO: Where are you with the 18-and-under demographic?
TAYLOR: We haven’t made any partnerships with any school districts in a really major way. … Here’s the plan: We’re currently creating a curriculum to train college athletes to go back into their high schools and middle schools and train the younger generation. Those guys are going to have more impact than any of these guys could. There’s a certain amount of cultural capital that athletes have with the ability to change hearts and minds in these difficult environments.
KLEMKO: Who reaches out to you the most, personally?
TAYLOR: A lot of folks that I’ve known growing up have reached out to me because either they are closeted or they have friends or family who are closeted. It became clear that a huge number of people I’ve known are affected by homophobia in sports. There have been closeted professional athletes who have reached out, but we’re still at the very beginning… there’s still a lot of fear and uncertainty for the closeted gay athlete.
KLEMKO: For the athlete who wants to help, but doesn’t want to attach his name to Athlete Ally, what’s your advice?
TAYLOR: The biggest question is, how do we explicitly go about creating an inclusive environment to everyone? Joining Athlete Ally is on one end of the spectrum, but you can also as an athlete pick five words in your life to eliminate. Say something to a teammate next time you hear an anti-gay word in the locker room. That’s a start.
KLEMKO: Is the bigger obstacle for your mission in the front offices, or in the locker rooms?
TAYLOR: I think it’s really difficult to make an overarching statement about that. No two experiences are exactly alike. Fears and apprehension that one closeted athlete has can be completely different from another. That said, the average NBA career is 4.7 years. It’s even shorter for NFL players. So if coming out is going to hurt an athlete’s belief that they can make a team and stay in the league, that’s an obstacle. On the other hand, you can have a really supportive owner or franchise but if you’re on a team that is using anti-gay language every day, a closeted athlete is not going to feel safe to come out in that space.
KLEMKO: Jason Collins popped the NBA’s cherry. How do we get the ball rolling in the NFL?
TAYLOR: Until we have a critical mass of athletes speaking out, you’re not going to see more athletes coming out. Some of the most vocal athletes have been NFL players, but when you look at how many guys have spoken out, it’s still a very small percentage. Were going to need more players, coaches and owners speaking out for real change to happen.
Robert Klemko is a University of Maryland graduate and a writer for TheMMQB.com, Sports Illustrated magazine’s online NFL destination by Peter King.