UNC scores well in LGBTQ athlete survey

In the world of sports, physical talent is often the only thing fans see from the stands. For Stephen Bickford, a former UNC men's soccer player who was a first-year in 2005, a secret loomed over that talent in a way he felt no one could understand.

“There was definitely always pressure feeling like I couldn’t be part of the team for something no one knew,” Bickford said. “When you go into an exam and something is affecting your mindset, you don’t do as well as you could. That’s what I felt like, like that gnawing feeling in the back of my head was constantly hindering my performance.”

Bickford, a forward for UNC men's soccer, concealed his homosexuality from the public until five years after he transferred from the University. Many college athletes in the LGBTQ+ community can relate to his story — where fear of being shunned for who you truly are keeps you from fully embracing a passion everyone should be able to enjoy.

Athlete Ally, an organization dedicated to ending anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment in athletics, recently released the Athletic Equality Index, a comprehensive report that assesses LGBTQ+ inclusion policies and practices for every athletic program in the NCAA’s Power Five conferences.

The AEI is the first report of its kind to provide fact-based data on the progress made by each major NCAA program in this effort. Liam Miranda, research and program manager at Athlete Ally, sees it as a major step for improvement in the future.

“We designed it because we really wanted to make a resource that schools can use to better their institutional commitments to LGBTQ+ inclusion in the athletic space,” Miranda said. “We not only wanted to highlight the great work schools are doing, but also to bring transparency to where they’re at on a list of policies and practices and give them a road map for future work to be done as well.”

Each program included in the study received a score based off factors like nondiscrimination policies, inclusive fan codes of conduct, accessible resources on campus and the presence of LGBTQ+ student-athlete groups. Athlete Ally also analyzed news reports, social media and more to assess how effectively each program enforces these factors.

UNC received a score of 80 out of a maximum score of 100 on the AEI. The University gained points in the “Pro-LGBTQ+ Inclusion Statement/Campaign” category after its part last year in pushing for the removal of all ACC championships from Charlotte over House Bill 2.

The University’s score reflects a definite effort to lead the push for change, but Cricket Lane, assistant athletic director for student-athlete development, feels there is plenty of room for the score to increase.

Lane cited a recent partnership between the University’s athletic department and the LGBT SportSafe Inclusion Program as something that will greatly improve inclusion on campus. 

SportSafe recognized UNC last year as meeting their required standard for excellence in inclusion policies and practice. They will provide the University’s athletic department with workshops and policy advice on the issue and effects of discrimination to athletes and staff.

Along with this, Lane referenced the Gender Spectrum program as a testament to the University’s commitment. Spectrum is a program for student-athletes at the University with an interest in social justice to promote inclusion and diversity of all kinds, including the LGBTQ+ community, to their fellow athletes and students.

“They just want to make sure that everybody can play to their potential and be authentic and not be afraid to be who they really are,” Lane said.

Many schools across the nation gave encouraging responses to Athlete Ally about their AEI scores, indicating a similar commitment to improving inclusion policies as the University has undertaken. Bickford looks at this response as an encouraging shift from what he saw as a closeted athlete a decade ago.

“Things have progressed so much, it’s like night and day,” Bickford said. “I wish I’d had someone to talk to back when I was a player because things could have gone a lot differently. It’s great to hear that the school is providing education and resources, and I hope it means that other students facing the same struggle that I did can feel accepted and not want to hide what’s really going on with them.”


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