For better or worse, athletes are role models. In Whitman’s case, it’s for the better.
This November the college’s entire athletic program stood up against at least one form of bigotry by endorsing Athlete Ally, a national campaign started to combat discrimination based on sexual orientation.
A locker room seems like the last place for a progressive campaign like Athlete Ally to form. After all, it’s a closed off place, an athlete’s sanctuary where jokes and hard language flourish. But Matt Rowett ’11, captain of the men’s swim team, one of two Whitman athletes who led the effort to bring the program to campus, points out that Hudson Taylor, a former Division I NCAA varsity wrestler, who self-identifies as heterosexual, founded the nonprofit.
“Our program targets varsity athletes because our culture dictates that athletes must be masculine, and this masculinity is tied with homophobic language,” said Rowett, who also identifies as heterosexual. “Because of these cultural standards, Whitman’s varsity athletes need to take positive action to eliminate homophobia in the locker room, on the field, on the court or in the water. As leaders we can be part of these first essential steps in changing this sports culture, starting at the very basic level of being conscious of what is said in the locker room.”
The Athlete Ally campaign promotes diversity and tolerance by starting a conversation about sexual orientation. It asks schools to be accountable for the language their students use and the values promoted in athletics. Alice Minor ’12, who worked with Rowett to kick-start the campaign, agrees that athletes are in a unique position to direct positive change on campus.
“Athletes have a lot of influence on campus, so it’s the prefect place for the program to start. It’s important for athletes to be leaders,” said Minor, a politics major and member of the Ultimate team.
Minor insists she could not have thought about trying to make a difference when she first started at Whitman. Her political awakening occurred her sophomore year after taking a politics course examining the state of Latinos in Washington. She became interested in social justice and realized Whitman was the perfect environment to advance change.
“Whitman’s a small place. If there’s something you really believe in, people will listen to you. It’s a place where you can make an idea happen if you put enough work into it.”
Athletes are part of Whitman’s community. They’re Whitman students first and foremost, which is why Rowett and Minor felt obligated to become involved.
“I realized that I was in the ideal situation to take action,” Rowett said. “As varsity athletes, we have a responsibility to promote equality within our teams.”
But it’s just a start. Currently, the two student-athletes are working towards establishing a permanent position on campus, supported by Associated Students of Whitman College (ASWC), to promote inclusivity in sports.
“I see Athlete Ally in the broader struggle for gay and transgender rights,” Minor said. “This is important because Whitman wants to be as progressive as possible. And I want the athletic department and varsity and club athletes to be part of that progressiveness. I want everyone to feel like they are part of the same community.”
Whitman Athletic Director Dean Snider, along with the varsity and club coaches, helped to officially establish Athlete Ally on campus. Snider said partnering with the organization will have an immediate effect at Whitman.
“I believe Whitman is an open and accessible campus,” Snider said. “The student body is very sharp and open to all backgrounds. But by adopting Athlete Ally we will make sure conversations about the issue will be taking place at Whitman.”
Rowett stresses that while the college’s administration was very supportive of the program this was a student-led movement.
“This partnership was made possible by students. This program would have never taken hold without the general support of the student community. I believe this upwelling of popular support for the campaign shows that the Whitman community does have an active voice,” Rowett said
By becoming the first Athlete Ally Ambassador School in the Northwest Conference, and one of relatively few on the West Coast, Whitman’s community proves it not only has an active voice, but also a tolerant and inclusive voice.