Like football fans around the country, I'm anxiously awaiting the official start of the 2011 NFL season and another exciting Super Bowl run for my favorite team — Here We Go Steelers!
In addition to the start of a new football season, fall marks the return of millions of students to schools across the country. Sadly, one group of students in particular, those who are or are thought to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT), remain uniquely vulnerable to discrimination, harassment and abuse in public schools across the country. While numerous professional baseball teams and individual athletes have stepped up to deliver video messages of hope and support to these young people through the It Gets Better Project, it remains to be seen which NFL team will be the first to produce an It Gets Better video.
The It Gets Better Project originated in the fall of 2010 in response to several tragic suicides involving young people who experienced unrelenting harassment and abuse in their schools because of their perceived sexual orientation. Far too many LGBT youth, including those who are aspiring athletes, have a very difficult time imagining what their lives might be like as gay adults. The problem is made worse by the fact that many of these young people face daily discrimination, harassment, and even physical abuse in their schools and have no LGBT adults and mentors in their lives.
In June, the San Francisco Giants became the first professional sports team to contribute a video message of hope to LGBT youth through It Gets Better. Since then, several other Major League Baseball teams have produced It Gets Better videos. Now, as summer turns into fall and football resumes its rightful place in our Sunday traditions, no professional football team has yet to produce an It Gets Better video.
In the National School Climate Survey, a 2009 study of more than 7,000 LGBT middle and high school students, nine out of 10 LGBT students reported experiencing harassment at their school within the past year based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, and two-thirds said they felt unsafe at school because of who they are. Nearly one-third skipped at least one day of school within the previous month because of concerns for their safety.
The U.S. Department of Education has listed the effects of harassment in school as including lowered academic achievement and aspirations; increased anxiety; loss of self-esteem and confidence; depression and post-traumatic stress; general deterioration of physical health; self-harm and suicidal thinking; feelings of alienation in the school environment, such as fear of other children; and absenteeism from school.
The aim of It Gets Better is to send video messages of hope and support to these young people, saying in essence that yes, life does get better, a lot better, hang in there and don't give up. To date, there have been over 25,000 It Gets Better videos from around the world that have been viewed more than 40 million times. Included among these have been submissions from President Obama and British Prime Minister, and Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, as well as ACLU staff.
While all of the It Gets Better videos have served to provide critically important messages of hope and support, those coming from professional sports teams carry a special resonance, particularly for young LGBT athletes who often feel that their only path to success is if no one ever finds out who they really are. Fear of rejection by coaches and teammates often burden these young people with tremendous stress and worry far beyond that involving on-field performance and a desire to succeed. To see positive and affirmative messages of hope coming from some of the most successful and talented athletes of our day is truly a game-changing development for LGBT youth.
The question now is: Who will be the first in the NFL?