Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Sports are typically a zero-sum game. For one side to win, the other side has to lose. Any gain by one team requires a deficit by the opposing team. It sounds divisive, doesn’t it? But what if sports could unify? What if college athletics could bring together “sides” that are often seen as being at odds to dialogue and find common ground?

As an athletics administrator at Brigham Young University, which is sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I have the blessing and responsibility to weave my testimony of Jesus Christ and his restored gospel, into my work with our 630 student-athletes.

One of the four major educational goals listed in the BYU Mission Statement is that “All students at BYU should be taught the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Any education is inadequate which does not emphasize that His is the only name given under heaven whereby mankind can be saved. Certainly all relationships within the BYU community should reflect devout love of God and a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbor.”

As our athletic department and student-athletes have reflected on this, we have asked ourselves the following question: How do my relationships reflect devout love of God and a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of my neighbor?

The past year, as an athletic department, we have made a concerted effort to educate and dialogue with our student-athletes about ways they can show love and respect to those within and outside the BYU community, focusing on the following areas of diversity and inclusion: race and ethnicity, LGBTQ, and persons of other faiths.

Much of this focus came on the heels of BYU’s participation in National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) Common Ground II, a think tank that brings together LGBTQ advocates with athletic administrators, largely from faith-based institutions, to explore the often-divisive issues of religious freedom and gender identity and sexual orientation on college campuses. My participation in Common Ground started me — and BYU — on a journey to both gain and share perspective on this important national discussion.

Hosted at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, Common Ground began with all 40 participants standing in a circle. A facilitator called out statements like “Join me on common ground if you are the oldest in your family.” Those who shared that characteristic stepped forward. But the statements quickly turned much more personal. “Join me on common ground if you consider yourself spiritual.” About two-thirds of the group stepped forward. “Join me on common ground if you are Christian.” A little less than half. Then, “Join me on common ground if you are Mormon.”

I was the only one to step forward.

All alone, with everyone staring in silence, I felt anxiety welling up inside. What were they thinking? How were they judging me? I felt exposed and isolated, like I didn’t belong. I realized that this is how it might sometimes feel to be a member of a minority group or the LGBTQ community — judged, exposed, vulnerable, alone.

I stepped out of the spotlight and back into the circle.

The activity continued with other sensitive statements. My heart sank when multiple people stepped forward for this: “Join me on common ground if you’ve ever attempted suicide because you thought it would be better to be dead than to be gay.” Emotions were raw, and I could feel the pain in the room.

We participated in a few other activities throughout the day designed to break down barriers. The last activity of the day we discussed “trigger phrases” for both faith-based people and LGBTQ people. This exercise spurred some emotionally charged dialogue, and at one point I felt particularly singled out. The facilitator, recognizing the tension in the room, suggested we stop for the day. I could feel the tears welling up. I tried to hold it together and was succeeding until Dr. Pat Griffin, who is a long-time advocate of LGBTQ rights in college sports, turned around, looked me in the eye and asked, “Liz, are you OK?” It was a remarkable gesture by someone I had met only hours before. Although Pat comes to this issue from a very different perspective than I, in that meaningful moment she showed a “loving, genuine concern for the welfare of her neighbor” and taught me an important lesson about how I can do the same.

Upon my return to campus, I was able to report on the many significant experiences and important dialogue that took place. BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe, expressed a desire for us to examine how we might better educate, support and model inclusive behavior for all of our student-athletes, especially those in minority groups or who identify as LGBTQ.

We invited NCAA Director of Inclusion, Dr. Amy Wilson, to visit BYU so that we could learn from her and further build understanding. In the two days Amy spent on campus, she met with students, faculty and administrators from all areas of campus.

The result of these amazing experiences is that we have added diversity and inclusion curriculum to our beginning-of-the-year team meetings and our freshman student-athlete health course, helping us better accomplish the BYU Mission Statement educational goal that “all relationships within the BYU community should reflect devout love of God and a loving, genuine concern for the welfare of our neighbor.”

We created a Diversity and Inclusion Council that works hand in hand with our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee to examine the unique needs of our minority student-athletes, to educate and promote unity within our department, and connect our minority student-athletes with resources on and off campus.

I love my Savior. My testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ is that every person on this earth is a child of a Heavenly Father and Mother with infinite worth and potential. The purpose of mortality is that we might learn how to become more like them. Each day, in my professional and personal life, I hope my devout love of God shows in the way I treat others, particularly those with different lived experiences. I am incredibly grateful to work for an athletic department where I am encouraged to express my faith and teach the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sports are typically a zero-sum game. The NCAA Common Ground Initiative seeks to be the exception, and BYU is honored and grateful to be a part of it.

Liz Darger is Senior Associate Athletic Director at Brigham Young University Athletics (BYUCougars.com).

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