By Joe Arruda
Almost immediately after the Springfield Athletics account posted the first video of the new “True Colors” series on all of its platforms, junior Grace Dzindolet started getting direct messages:
“This is awesome!”
“So proud of you!”
But one stood out more than the others. It read, as she remembered:
“You were the first gay person I ever met and you just made me so comfortable and I finally came out like last year.”
The guard on the women’s basketball team was shocked. The message came from a girl who was in seventh grade when Dzindolet coached her as a high schooler.
“It’s just incredible that one video can help so many people feel comfortable with themselves because you don’t really get the chance to do that very often,” she said. “It’s a really special thing to be a part of. I think a lot of people – not only will they enjoy it – but I think they’ll start to feel a little bit better about themselves when they see other kids start talking about it more too.”
True Colors is a video series in its infant stage that gives student-athletes in the LGBTQ+ community a platform to share their stories in an effort to create a safe space on campus. The series was inspired by a sequence of initiatives stemming from the Student-Athlete Leadership Team (SALT).
A Diversity, Equity and Inclusion subcommittee was formed within SALT, and three affinity groups were created. One was the BIPOC group, another for international student-athletes, and one for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Dzindolet, co-presidents with Lily Gould – a member of the track and field team, held their first planning meeting which gathered about 30 participants, including members of the LGBTQIA+ community and allies.
“Especially in a community like athletics, it is definitely more stigmatized to come out or even talk about it. Basically we wanted to create a space where we’re all comfortable to come together and support each other,” Gould said. “Physically coming together is the main thing because people are scattered with their coming out experiences – some people aren’t out yet or wherever you are in your story, this is a group where you can come and just like be there. You can come as an ally – actually we had more allies come to the first meeting of it, which was really cool.”
She added, “In high school I would never have thought that I’d be doing something like this, but to kind of be the voice, to be the voice of queer student-athletes is really empowering and not to forget that people are still scared to come out and still scared to say their story. Maybe if I can make the environment out here friendly, make a group for them – a group for us – that’s everything.”
In that meeting, Steph Lyons, an ally and one of Dzindolet’s teammates, suggested that a great way for people to get involved would be to reimagine the “My Story, My Truth” initiative that the athletics department began in the fall semester.
The department has received national praise for its openness and inclusivity, including the 2020 NCAA Division III and D3SIDA Fall Recognition Award for that video series in Oct. 2020.
Adaeze Alaeze-Dinma, who filled one of the Zoom rectangles at that meeting, has been instrumental in these initiatives through her role in athletic communications, with the My Story, My Truth series focusing on the experiences of student-athletes of color through video interviews that have drawn attention on all social media platforms.
“There might be a lot of people insecure or closeted about their feelings, and I think these videos and people speaking about it more just helps them feel better. The ‘My Story, My Truth’ just got a lot of people thinking about what needed to change in the community with Black Lives Matter and stuff like that and so I think the same kind of wave can happen within the LGBTQ community,” Dzindolet said.
“You never really know what people are going through and I think a lot of people grew up in different situations where they weren’t accepted or they weren’t allowed to be who they want to be, and I think watching these videos can really change their mind on who they want to become and who they want to be with. I hope that people begin to feel comfortable with themselves because they should.”
The safe space would not recognize its potential if it weren’t for the support from allies, that can come in the form of teammates, coaches, mentors and even spectators.
“It’s just important to support your friends and your teammates to get their voice heard,” Lyons said.
On the Springfield College campus, student-athletes typically play an integral role as leaders within the community. Making up about 31 percent of the student body, according to the College’s website, one can look around and spot an athlete in just about any building on campus.
This year, their role has evolved. With no intercollegiate sporting events since the campus was deserted in March of 2020 because of the Coronavirus pandemic, everyone – especially the athletic department – has had to adapt and overcome.
Storytelling has had to change. It isn’t just about ‘The Jersey’ anymore, but rather the human behind it.
“It’s really rewarding to see the looks on the student-athlete’s faces when we ask questions that they’ve never been asked before,” the Assistant Athletic Director for Communications, Brian Magoffin, said. “What we’ve been able to do this academic year is really get at the essence of who these students are and I think that’s been really empowering across the board.”
Throughout Black History Month, the department has designated Mondays and Fridays for their “What does it mean to be a Black student-athlete at Springfield?” posts – Mondays being for current student-athletes, and Fridays for alumni in the SC Hall of Fame. On Feb. 23, Springfield will be represented by Shamar Martin and LaToya Franklin in a panel discussion that will involve reflecting and connecting on Division III Black student-athlete experiences. The panel discussion will include representatives from Amherst College and Mount Holyoke, as well as Lamarr Pottinger, the NCAA Associate Director for Leadership Development
Springfield’s willingness to highlight its student-athletes and engage in challenging conversations is setting a unique example for the community.
“I think it’s incredible. I don’t think there is another Division III school that gives you so many opportunities as much as Springfield does,” Dzindolet said. “It means a lot to student-athletes because growing up, you’re literally just an athlete and I feel like that’s something that you just are and there’s nothing else that comes with it. But then you get here and you’re actually able to make a difference, so I think it’s really awesome.”
The interviews aren’t comfortable, but that’s the point. There will always be that breaking-in stage – like a brand new baseball glove lathered with oil, rolled up and wrapped with rubber bands and slept on underneath a mattress – it’s an uncomfortable night’s sleep, but once the leather has been broken in, it just feels right.
Questions are asked that haven’t been asked before and answers follow that may have never been verbalized. But, in the end, people of different backgrounds, skin tones and identities are able to connect and get comfortable – safely.
Photo Courtesy of Heidi Schuman