Last year during a Saint Michael's College men's ice hockey game, an opposing player directed a racial slur toward an African-American athlete on the Purple Knights' team. The offending player was called on it and had to answer to his school's athletic director, who told him the behavior was not acceptable. But this past season, when the same player made a homophobic comment to another Saint Michael's athlete, nothing happened.
"Nobody did anything about it," says Dave Landers, Faculty Athletics Representative at Saint Michael's. "The player it was said to went ballistic, and later when the game official was asked about the incident, he admitted he had heard the comment, but didn't do anything.
"That's where I think there's a responsibility for administrators," continues Landers. "We have to do a better job of saying to all coaches and assistant coaches and athletic trainers and game officials, 'You have to challenge this kind of behavior.' What has happened in the last few years is that anything racist will be challenged, but not something homophobic. Yet homophobic comments can be just as destructive as racist ones."
Landers then put his thoughts into action by challenging Saint Michael's student-athletes to create an "It Gets Better" video. The It Gets Better Project got its start in September 2010 when syndicated columnist and book author Dan Savage created a YouTube video with his partner, Terry Miller, to inspire hope in young people facing harassment and remind them that "it gets better." Since then, countless others, including President Barack Obama, have strengthened the message with their own videos.
Landers began by meeting with Jen Niebling, the school's women's basketball coach and SAAC Advisor, who loved the idea. Next, he attended a SAAC meeting, where he showed athletes an "It Gets Better" video created by the Boston Red Sox and also directed them to AthleteAlly.com, a site dedicated to improving the current culture, language, and attitudes toward gays in sports.
"What I said to them was exactly what I ended up saying in the video--last fall there were at least 10 young people across the country who committed suicide because they were either gay or perceived to be gay," Landers says. "It was found that many of the kids who took their own lives had been bullied, and in too many of the situations, the people doing the bullying had been athletes. So I told our SAAC what I thought they should do, but left the decision up to them."
Landers says that within 24 hours, Brady Earle, a member of the men's ice hockey team, and Samantha Steinmetz, a women's basketball player, had contacted Common Ground, the gay/straight alliance on the Saint Michael's campus. Landers got the backing of school President John Neuhauser, and within another couple weeks, a script had been written.
The SAAC then collaborated with students in the journalism department who had access to camera equipment and began to put together footage. The final product consisted of interviews with various student-athletes, administrators, and others on campus showing their support for the LGBT community and spreading the "It Gets Better" message.
As momentum for the project grew, Landers heard from a member of the men's tennis team, Brian Healey. "He told me that he really wanted to be part of the video as an openly gay athlete," Landers says. "I knew him, but I didn't know he was gay. I made sure he was okay with the world knowing he was gay, and he was."
On the morning of Dec. 14, Landers saw the final product for the first time and was blown away. The students originally wanted to wait until the beginning of the spring semester and have a party to release the three-and-a-half-minute video, but Landers and Neuhauser convinced them to post it immediately.
"The holidays can be a really tough time for gay kids," Landers says. "I wanted to put it out there as a gift to all our students on campus so they could see it before they went home for the holidays."
The video was posted on YouTube, Vimeo, and Facebook, and it quickly became a viral sensation beyond the campus community, with little done to promote it. The video has amassed approximately 3,200 hits on YouTube and another 5,000 on Vimeo to date.
"We've gotten e-mails from all over the country," says Landers. "I received one from a 61-year old man who is a high school girls' basketball coach. He is gay and not out, and wants to make a safer place for his high school athletes. Brian has also received some amazing e-mails from tennis coaches across the country.
"People have been really surprised that this is coming from a Catholic college, but to my knowledge there hasn't been any blowback from the bishop or campus ministry," he continues. "Everyone is just very excited about what our students have done and they are very eager to share it. I could not be more proud of the students. I put the idea out there for them, but they took it and ran with it. They wanted to make a difference and let people know that athletes can be allies and not adversaries--and that it does get better."
To watch the Saint Michael's "It Gets Better" video, go to YouTube.com and type "Saint Michael's College It Gets Better" into the search window.