Interview with Deborah Block of Athlete Ally

Deborah Block, a fellow Tufts graduate with an admirable passion for promoting equality and understanding among peers, helped to found the nonprofit Athlete Ally. Along with founder Hudson Taylor, Deborah is committed to making sure that all athletes – regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or other defining trait – are treated with dignity and respect among their peers, especially in the sports context. I spoke with her about Athlete Ally’s growth and vision.

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Jen Bokoff: What moment stands out to you as a defining moment in establishing the mission of Athlete Ally?

Deborah Block: Definitely when my Co-Founder Hudson Taylor was a guest on Thomas Roberts’ show on MSNBC. Thomas heard about Hudson and our cause through Twitter and sent him a direct message that he’d like to meet him and potentially bring him on the show. That’s exactly what happened. The day the show aired live, the number of our Facebook likes, pledge signatures, and Twitter followers sky-rocketed. A few months later, because of a press release we sent out, Hudson was presented with PFLAG’s Straight for Equality Award at their 3rd Annual Gala, an award that Maya Angelou had received years back. A few months later, we were on the front page of nytimes.com and Hudson was named The Huffington Post’s “Person of the Day.” This national press coverage was defining in getting the word out about LGBT inclusion in sports through mainstream news sources that write about much more than just write about LGBT issues. Through this, reaching mainstream athletes and advocates who can help make a real difference became tangible.

JB: The premise of Athlete Ally is that no group should be disadvantage or bullied in the sports arena; we should act as one. What’s your approach to sustainably combating bullying both on and off the playing field?

DB: Athlete Ally is grounded in the idea that athletes are leaders in their communities, whether that be in middle school, high school, college, or professional sports. Those athletes who are chosen as captains of their teams are not picked just because they’re great athletes; they’re picked because they also exhibit true leadership skills on and off the field. They have the ability to motivate their team and be a role model through all of their actions. Our goal at Athlete Ally is to empower athletes – particularly those who are straight – to be role models and combat homophobia by, for instance, challenging derogatory language on the field, in the locker room and in their daily routine.  It’s our hope that as more athletes promote LGBT inclusiveness and respect, others will follow.

JB: Women’s (psuedo) equality in sports was largely spurred by Title IX. How do you think Athlete Ally can reach the same or greater impact with true equality across lines of gender and sexuality in sports?

DB: When we started Athlete Ally, it was clear that stereotypes in male sports are far different from stereotypes among women athletes. On male sports teams, you commonly hear the expression that you need to “man up” or “not be a pussy” or “stop throwing like a girl.” But within female sports, there’s the automatic assumption that women who play sports are butch or a lesbian. Although men’s and women’s teams face a separate set of problems, Athlete Ally encourages a similar solution. If straight athletes on men and women’s teams stand up for inclusiveness and team unity among their teammates and challenge derogatory language and  stereotypes, they can empower their peers to challenge homophobia and stand together as a unified team.

JB: You must have learned a lot setting up your own nonprofit, from governance, to publicity, to defining goals. What can you share with us?

DB: Goodbye 9-5. To get Athlete Ally off the ground, I worked closely with Hudson and his wife Lia to work through everything from getting our website set up, to creating a mission statement, to filing for a 501c3, to marketing the cause to the press, and more. Something important that I didn’t realize before we started is that if you’re putting together an organization for a cause people truly believe in, you can get a TON of help for free. We ultimately brought on pro-bono lawyers, a pro-bono accounting firm, a pro-bono publicist, a pro-bono public relations firm. And by working closely with another LGBT organization, we also built our website for almost nothing. As a new nonprofit, we were working with a non-existent budget, so the fact that some of the most respected professionals in their fields were willing to come on board and help us just because they believed in what we’re doing was both humbling and inspiring. Another tip: Get used to 2am conference calls. The adrenalin rush of starting something new and exciting can be so intense that sometimes you and your teammates are up and ready to do work, even in the middle of the night. 

JB: If people want to help the cause, what can they do?

DB: Through our cornerstone Ambassador Program program, we work with students on college campuses across the country to bring Athlete Ally to their school. We give these ambassadors the resources they need to meet with their school’s athletic directors, present to Student Athletic Advisory Committees, LGBT support groups, coaches, and team captains and encourage them to sign our Athlete Ally Pledge. This pledge asks students, athletes, and sports fans to commit to challenging homophobia in sports. Every month, we have new ambassadors who sign on to spread the cause and speak to athletes at their school. If someone wants to help, the first things they can do are sign the pledge online, share the pledge link with their network on Facebook and Twitter, and ask others to do the same. The reason why Athlete Ally is gaining so much momentum is because this is a cause people believe in and want to support.

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In the year since it was founded, Athlete Ally has had incredible success, including getting 4,864 pledges to make teammates feel respected on and off the field. They also have had numerous press pieces and recently partnered with the NCAA. Their Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube Channel also have quickly built up an engaged following. Read more and support Athlete Ally by exemplifying respect and leadership!

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