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NCAA hosts forum on LGBTQ and faith-based topics

Goal of Common Ground II is opening communication and breaking down barriers

Close to 40 individuals representing NCAA public and private colleges and universities, faith-based organizations, and LGBTQ affiliations and interests met at the national office to participate in Common Ground II, a forum to explore and identify strategies to further open communication and understanding between LGBTQ and athletics populations.

Organizers structured Common Ground II to address biases, as well as organizational and institutional philosophies, through program exercises designed to break down barriers that could pose a challenge to athletics programs committed to inclusion and the well-being of student-athletes and staff.

Participants included athletics and conference administrators; university officials; presidents and executive directors of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning organizations; current and former student-athletes; and NCAA staff.

“Hosting a forum like NCAA Common Ground is evolutionary because there aren’t many, if any, contexts where you have deep dialogue with members representing LGBTQ and faith-based groups that allow people to be open, honest, vulnerable and see all sides of an issue,” said Bernard Franklin, NCAA executive vice president of education and community engagement. “The key is to humanize the topic and help people understand their differences and similarities, while trying to see things from other perspectives so everyone can work more effectively to bridge gaps.”

Participants were led through exercises geared to spur conversation around protecting and respecting rights of faith-based schools that have set policy based on their faith-based doctrines, while still ensuring that LGBTQ student-athletes and staff are treated with respect, compassion and fairness. They discussed how to protect and respect the beliefs and rights of people of faith, while also protecting the rights of LGBTQ student-athletes and staff.

Additionally, participants looked at how their individual actions could create more respectful and inclusive climates, and what institutional policies and best practices could be developed to create inclusive and respectful climates for LGBTQ and faith-based individuals.

Participants from Common Ground I, which was held in 2014, also spoke to  attendees about how they bridged gaps two years ago by allowing themselves to share their honest feedback while understanding that they didn’t have to change each individual’s inner beliefs. 

“It was very exciting to pull together a group of people from faith-based schools, people of faith, LGBTQ people and LGBTQ people of faith to have a conversation about how we can make sure that all students, regardless of their faith, sexual orientation or gender identity, can have an athletics experience that is full of dignity and respect,” said Pat Griffin, professor emeritus in social justice education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and a member of the planning committee for Common Ground I and II.

“It has been an amazing experience to be in a room with a group of people who have fundamental differences but who can also lean in to try and figure out the ways in which we can accomplish our goals. It was an incredible conversation of what is possible,” Griffin said.

Common Ground II also explored “trigger” points, which are external and internal stimuli that cause individuals to experience intense emotions. This exercise allowed the participants to realize what messaging, phrases, beliefs or myths resulted in fear, anger, a lack of understanding or a gain of support. It also allowed immediate feedback and answers to questions and a deeper understanding of innate biases and how to address them.

NCAA President Mark Emmert spoke to participants on the second day of the forum, focusing on the benefits of open conversation at Common Ground II and how it contributed to student development and education overall.  Participants then separated into specific groups where they could have open dialogue about what specifically was needed to break down barriers, such as the need for more respect and fairness; more education; and bringing more individuals into conversations such as presidents, chancellors, staff and Student-Athlete Advisory Committees. 

“Being part of this experience means being part of a group of people who are willing to make a difference with an environment that doesn’t necessarily have to be accepting, but respectful,” said Rosamaria Riccobono, a member of the national Division III SAAC and a women’s lacrosse player at Eastern Connecticut State University. “We can have different views, different opinions, different lifestyles, but if we can come and find that common ground and learn to respect each other, we can create a safe space to know that it is OK to be who you are.” 

The group also looked at specific action items, which included developing a statement of solidarity; working with other organizations to continue discussing specific topics from Common Ground II; establishing a traveling Common Ground team that would work specifically with campuses in group settings; educating people on inclusive language through communication resources; and possibly developing a logo or marker that would identify safe spaces on campus for LGBTQ student-athletes.  Participants also were asked to take discussion points from Common Ground back to their campuses and/or conferences to encourage more understanding, education and conversation at the local level.

The NCAA inclusion group plans to continue discussions on LGBTQ and faith-based schools at the 2017 NCAA Convention in January and at the Inclusion Forum in April.

“I hope we can show how people with differences can come together with convicted civility, have discussions and march forward together in a way that brings reconciliation to relationships,” said Gary Pine, athletics director at Azusa Pacific University and a member of the planning committee for Common Ground II.