Common Fears, Common Goals: Athletes and Activists at Skidmore College

By Clare Kenny '15, co-founder

That’s how you live free
To truly see and be seen
— Father John Misty

Sometimes I felt like a double agent, sitting in sociology classes, hiding behind my copy of Gender Trouble while heated discussions about our campus’ problematic athletic culture ensued. I knew full well that I was a member of that culture. Sometimes I would remain silent, but more often I agreed that something needed to be done to improve athlete and non-athlete relations at Skidmore. 

I was the only athlete who graduated in 2015 with a degree in Gender Studies. But here’s the thing, I certainly wasn’t the only athlete who participated in social justice work. Many of my teammates and fellow athletes attended lectures about racism, took classes about feminism, spoke constantly about sexism, and campaigned against climate change, domestic violence, and economic disparity. And while it wasn’t always comfortable, I remember discussing politics and social issues in the locker room, on the bus, and after practice. My teammates and athlete peers were some of Skidmore’s brightest students, but we were not who the general population saw as “the athletes.”

I wanted to change that perception. I wanted work with the athletes who were exceptionally creative and cared deeply about social issues. I also wanted to reach the athletes who were stuck in the in-between—the ones who wanted to better the community but didn’t know how. And I needed to convince the resistant athletes that we needed change. 

If Skidmore athletes comprise nearly 15% of the student-body AND are viewed as the main perpetrators of some of our biggest social issues, I knew it was not only preferable but critical to include athletes in campus activism.

I knew it was not only preferable but critical to include athletes in campus activism.

Show Your Sport aims to unite and activate one of the largest—and powerful—groups on college campuses for social good. Athletic culture is historically (and presently) less progressive and diverse than other communities on university campuses. It seemed that within the bubble of athletics, social justice issues were not being addressed as effectively or openly as they were in other groups on campus. Because of this, I saw the athletic community as simultaneously a threat and an untapped resource for the greater activist community at Skidmore.

My style as an activist has been to analyze communities using a ‘needs based’ approach. Needs based advocacy requires the advocate—activist—to identify an issue within a specific community, communicate with those affected by the issue, assess the needs of that community, and address the issue in order to take steps towards retribution. Perhaps this approach seems like obvious and even unoriginal problem-solving, but in the era of social ‘post-’ this sort of approach is both nuanced and effective. 

The ‘era of social post-’ refers to the notion that we live in a post-racial, post-feminist, post-queer, etc. society. This has led to a profound absence of empathy for those who are affected by racism, sexism, homophobia/heterosexism/transphobia, and numerous other identities. Common contentions that society is no longer (as) bigoted or intolerant has stunted the furthering of many social justice movements. Without blatant examples of injustice it becomes harder for the disadvantaged groups to explain to those unaffected why they need change. But that does not mean the injustices are not there, they are simply more complex, coded, and harder to address. 

Without blatant examples of injustice it becomes harder for the disadvantaged groups to explain to those unaffected why they need change.

Skidmore is an environment that challenges the idea of ‘social post-’ in many ways, yet, like our nation as a whole, it may also rely on the idea that it is a tolerant and safe place for diverse identities. Sometimes that belief led to complacency and widespread denial of institutional problems. One such problem I experienced during my time at Skidmore was the athletic community’s relationship with homophobia and LGBTQ identities. 

I wanted to change that. And in order to do so, I needed to make sure I understood the people affected, what they thought, what they needed, who was responsible, and what was the problem in their specific community.

It became clear to me that the general population of students, especially those who identified as queer, thought they knew what the problem was: many athletes—especially male athletes—were homophobic. In gender studies courses and queer-centric club meetings, we would discuss our horror stories: hearing homophobic slurs, receiving dirty looks, and being blatantly laughed at by athletes in the dining hall, at parties, and downtown. Others remarked on the unsettling feelings they had around large groups of athletes: feeling judged, different, or even unsafe in their presence. Many students noted how athletes rarely showed up to activist rallies, social justice lectures, or charity events. Often, the simple belief that athletes rarely took gender studies (and other sociological/culturally inclusive) courses was sufficient enough evidence for them to conclude that the general athletic population was not concerned with social issues or social justice. 

The athletic community should be held responsible for their absence in Skidmore’s active social justice scene. However, the fault cannot be placed solely on the athletes. Non-athlete activists have played a role in isolating themselves from the athletic community. During SAAC meetings, it was not uncommon to hear members recall feeling “unwanted” by activist groups, or being stereotyped as “ignorant” and “unaware” by non-athletes in social justice centered spaces. These attitudes, or even the preconception that these attitudes awaited, left many athletes feeling discouraged from joining or continuing their roles in campus activism. 

As a queer-feminist identifying athlete, I was perhaps looked at as both a perpetrator and victim of these injustices. I was a member of this large and powerful group on campus that seemingly took more interest in practice and partying than in addressing disadvantaged communities. But I was also a queer person, someone who would have to give up a important part of their life in order to disengage from this potentially homophobic environment. 

What I saw in common between these groups was the fear of being misunderstood.

I can see the hesitation on the part of the activists—fearing rejection, being made fun of. I also see the fears of the athlete—being seen as less intellectual, and feeling unwanted or resented. 

What I saw in common between these groups was the fear of being misunderstood. While I do not believe it is holistically accurate to compare the identity of the LGBTQ person with the identity of the athlete, the two identities do operate similarly, and a comparison was at least productive in starting the conversation.

Show Your Sport, as it was originally conceived, provided opportunities for non-athlete activists to meet athletes and coaches who were interested in a making a difference. Breaking down stereotypes and exposing common fears also helped many of the straight-athletes empathize with their fellow LGBTQ athletes and peers. This experience was key. 

It was crucial for Show Your Sport to address that these identities overlap in complex ways for certain individuals. The LGBTQ-athlete and LGBTQ-coach, both out or closeted, remains a vulnerable figure in most communities. At amateur levels of athletics, younger LGBTQ athletes often cope by hiding their LGBTQ identity, lying about their social and personal lives, or adopting a temporary, exaggerated heterosexual interest in order to fit in. Older LGBTQ athletes deal with the aforementioned, but can also feel a obligation to suppress their sexual identity, often distancing themselves from their younger same-sex teammates to avoid predatory accusations.

In addition to age differences, the experience of the male LGBTQ-athlete and female LGBTQ-athlete often have their own subset of codes, reservations, and threats. Issues facing the LGBTQ-athlete are numerous and vary from person to person, but perhaps most commonly is the fear of being seen as “the weird one,” “the different one.”

Show Your Sport’s inaugural poster campaign aimed to highlight the beauty and power of the “different ones.” While most of the participants were straight-identified allies, the posters intentionally did not label which athlete was LGBTQ-identified or ally-identified. This was an important distinction this campaign set to make. We wanted our athletes and student-body to question what they thought they knew about athletes, LGBTQ people, and campus activism. ‘Allyship’ is a key component in Show Your Sport. Particularly for this campaign, we saw coming out as an ally not only important for straight/heterosexual athletes, but for LGBTQ athletes who were coming out as supportive of their own and other LGBTQ identities as well. 

We wanted our athletes and student-body to question what they thought they knew about athletes, LGBTQ people, and campus activism.

We wanted to prove that the athletic community was ready and willing to get involved in greater campus conversations regarding homophobia and LGBTQ-issues. We felt it was important to focus on the individual athletes as allies, so that when you saw them in class, in the dining hall, or downtown,  you knew they had participated in a pro-LGBTQ educational seminar, rallied with their teammates, and taken the steps to improve our community through social activism.and 

Show Your Sport wants their participants and onlookers “to truly be and be seen”—to be understood, heard, valued, validated, accepted, and embraced by their community. 

That’s how you live free
To truly be and be seen