When New York University men’s volleyball senior captain Jay Hayes set out to make a video for the “It Gets Better Project,” he sat in front of his computer’s web cam feeling a little awkward and not knowing exactly what to say.

Hayes, an openly gay student-athlete, had lots to share to support the “It Gets Better Project,” a movement started by Dan Savage and Terry Miller in 2010 in response to a number of suicides by students who were bullied in school because they identified or perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (LGBT).  He just couldn’t find the right words sitting alone in front of the camera as he tried to give a voice and visibility to gay athletes, who might be struggling with their identity.

Flustered, Hayes took a new approach on the project – a team approach. Hayes wanted to make a bigger statement and decided to get as many NYU student-athletes, coaches and administrators to participate in the video as possible.  Boldly, he took his idea to Christopher Bledsoe, NYU’s director of athletics. 

“At that point Northwestern University was the only athletics program that had done a video, and I gave him that example,” Hayes said. “He liked it and supported the idea, and I went to our Student-Athletic Advisory Committee and I pitched it to them.”

I was very honored to be asked to be a part of this by Jay. It took a ton of courage to be the person to present this to an athletics department. I’m glad there was a person here that was strong enough to take that first step.
-- NYU volleyball coach Jolie Ward

Hayes got a great response from his fellow student-athletes as it became a department-wide project. He also got Jolie Ward on board -- the Violets’ women’s volleyball head coach, who is openly gay – to appear in the video.

“I was very honored to be asked to be a part of this by Jay,” Ward said. “It took a ton of courage to be the person to present this to an athletics department. I’m glad there was a person here that was strong enough to take that first step.”

Ward, who has been a women’s volleyball head coach for 14 years, recently married her partner and had a baby girl.

“This was a great chance for me to step out into a larger environment and be able to say that it is okay to say who you are, and live your life that way,” Ward said. “If you’re good coach, that’s how you should be evaluated, and not on who you live with or who you’re in a relationship with.” 

Also featured in NYU’s video is Scott Donie, assistant swimming and diving coach and 1992 Olympic silver medalist.  He speaks about his experiences competing in a sport in which many athletes are perceived to be gay.

While there have been a handful of other collegiate athletics programs to take part in the “It Gets Better Project,” NYU’s was the first to have an openly gay student-athlete and coach appear in their video when it was released on April 9. Northwestern, St. Michael’s College (Vt.) and North Carolina have also produced videos.

“I have been very lucky … I haven’t been maliciously bullied for being gay,” Hayes said. “But I think it is important for young athletes to know that being gay and being an athlete is not mutually exclusive. The message of the video is that you can be gay, and that should not affect your goals of being an athlete.”

“Athletics can be a very closeted environment where people feel they cannot be who there are, or talk about who they are because of discrimination,” Ward said. “Even though there is an understanding it is okay to be gay, no one ever talks about it. [Hayes] wanted to make sure that the gay population of student-athletes felt like they were getting some sort of support from some athletics component.”

While the “It Gets Better Project” has received thousands of videos from people and groups around the world, there are also a few not-for-profit organizations specifically geared to homophobic bullying in athletics. “Athlete Ally” was founded in 2011 by Hudson Taylor, a former Maryland wrestler, “with the mission of educating, encouraging and empowering straight athlete allies to combat homophobia and transphobia in sports.” Over 5,000 people have signed Athlete Ally’s pledge to stop homophobia. 

The “You Can Play Project” encourages hockey players against homophobic rhetoric and language. The Connecticut men’s hockey team recently produced a video in support of the project.

With each video and pledge and person who lends their voice in support of these projects, Hayes and Ward are hoping for a more inclusive and less homophobic environment in the athletics community.

“Sports are such a huge aspect of full equality,” Hayes said. “When you look back at the Civil Rights movement, it wouldn’t have been as successful without people like Jackie Robinson [the first black to play in the MLB].  Sometimes, people just need to be proven wrong.”

“I think there is a greater understanding that inclusivity is important, not just within the general population, but in athletics,” Ward said. “It is important to continue to educate not just the student-athletes, but also coaches and athletics administrators. There is still an old school mentality out there that you just don’t speak about it. I think this conversation has to start somewhere, so I’m glad it has started, but I know it is still going to be a long road.”

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