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Inclusion belongs in every arena and field—law and football included

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OUTlaw Post
San Francisco's City Hall is illuminated in rainbow colors during the 2020 Pride Week Celebration. (Photo: yhelfman/Shutterstock.com)

College sports and queer activism rarely meet. In fact, many queer students lack a sense of belonging both on the field and in the stands.

Before the November 2019 Oklahoma-Baylor football game, OU Law’s OUTlaw chapter began bridging the gap, constructing a national communication system between minority groups.

It all started at a college football game in Los Angeles. The Oklahoma Sooners were playing the UCLA Bruins at the Rose Bowl. Although the Sooners were all but decimating the Bruins, UCLA was clearly winning at something. That “something” was the protection of minority and underrepresented students and fans.

In fact, the Pacific 12 Conference, which UCLA is a member, has explicit policies and protections for all marginalized people. At the beginning of each game, amidst the backdrop of beer, cheering, and the national anthem, the Pac 12 plays a video to let the entire stadium know its’ strong stance against hate. On a massive Jumbotron, images of all types of people appeared alongside affirming narration.

I got goosebumps. I have no idea if I was the only non-conference spectator in the stadium to notice this announcement. However, I knew this statement mattered.

When I returned home to Oklahoma, I immediately began to research what our own conference, the Big 12, was doing to stand against intolerance. To my disappointment, nothing on the conference website led me to a clear answer. Moreover, I couldn’t remember a time where I heard any joint affirmation of inclusivity at an OU football game, gymnastics meet, or any other sporting event.

I can look around my university and see the amazing work that our minority student groups are doing. However, I know that we could be doing so much more with the help of our entire conference. A network of massive universities standing against hate is a wonderful step in the right direction, but a message broadcast to an entire stadium is satisfying visibility. So, I decided that the Big 12 needed to step up and adopt a statement on diversity, equity, and inclusivity; and in my opinion the best group of people to ask for this policy were Big 12 law students.

Almost immediately, we discovered that many law schools don’t have easily accessible information for minority students, queer student groups, or other unrepresented outsiders. The task of gathering a list of people we could work with at each law campus in our conference was staggering.

Some campuses were uniquely prepared to hear me say “who can I talk with about queer student life?” However, some campuses became audibly uncomfortable, dodging to pass us off to someone else. Eventually, we were able to start a dialogue about what other law students had experienced. After a discussion began, queer undergraduate students at Baylor University came to seek our help.

It’s difficult to summarize the struggles of queer students at Baylor. Baylor remains the only school in both the Big 12 and all power-five conferences to deny equal rights and recognition to its queer students. The university has adopted an official “statement on human sexuality,” which excludes the acceptance of any sexual identity not present in conservative biblical teaching. The statement also prohibits participation in student groups that go against this biblical form.

For our OUTlaw chapter, we recognized this as the clearest example of inequality in our conference. While our legal education doesn’t give us a toolkit to strip a private university of their biblical values, we can certainly use our advocacy voice to stand against this “statement.”

We used our legal writing skills to draft a statement for the press; we consulted and organized protests at the OU-Baylor football game; and we made sure that other students and fans witnessed our cause.

Did we accomplish those goals? Yes. But there’s so much more to do. The end goal was always to draft a joint statement to present to the Big 12 Conference in Irving, Texas.

But of course, the global pandemic had other plans.

If we are to enter a career of advocacy, we must work together going forward. Our greatest strength is in numbers, and it doesn’t hurt to stay efficient and organized. The smarter we work as law students, the easier it will be for future litigation and conversations on these same efforts.

Minority students have long been reporting a feeling of unbelonging in the world of sport. While I have hundreds of theories as to why this is, I can only conclude that the feeling is cemented, and it will take seasons of hard work to undo.

With our work to begin a national conversation about hate in this arena, the ball has certainly started rolling.

Trae Havens Trae Havens, a native Oklahoman, is a 3L at the University of Oklahoma College of Law. Trae serves as both a Staff Editor and a Note and Comment Editor for the Oklahoma Law Review. After serving one year as President of OUtlaw, Trae remains active on the board.