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From the You Can Play Project to mental health awareness, the America East continues to shine off the court

The America East is showing its commitment to inclusion and the well-being of student-athletes.

Take a look at the Twitter accounts of some prominent Division I conferences. What stands out?

In June, a month dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ pride, you might have noticed something different about the America East conference’s avatar and header image.

Some might brush this off as a little thing. After all, organizations all over country change their profiles to boast the colors of pride. But the America East’s updated images were a small-but-visible sign of its commitment to inclusion and equality in the Boston-based conference.

In December 2012, after a recommendation from the conference Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and a unanimous decision by the conference’s athletic directors, the America East partnered with the You Can Play Project, an organization committed to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ athletes. The America East was the first Division I athletic conference to partner with You Can Play.

At the outset of the partnership, the conference held “You Can Play Games” during the men’s and women’s basketball seasons. During these games, athletes wore You Can Play-branded gear displaying Pride colors.

In the five years since, commissioner Amy Huchthausen says that the program has expanded to fall and spring sports as well, including soccer, volleyball, softball, and baseball.

Colin Christiansen, an openly gay softball coach at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said he notices how much his players enjoy the You Can Play Games. In fact, the athletes themselves specifically requested having a You Can Play game last year, rather than it being something that was imposed on them by the conference.

“These games are a pretty bold statement,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen joined the coaching staff at UMBC last February after a brief stint as a graduate assistant at Tennessee. He said that his reception as an openly gay coach at UMBC was overwhelmingly positive.

“I feel that UMBC is a very diverse and welcoming place,” he said, noting that the head coach of the softball team, Heather Gelbard, is gay as well.

Christiansen added that his positive reception is directly connected with the America East’s embrace of the You Can Play Project.

The way Christiansen sees it, the America East is using its power as a force for good.

“They have a lot of influence and they stepped up and took charge,” he said.

But he also believes the America East is supporting inclusion in the right way; it promotes initiatives like You Can Play, without forcing its beliefs on anyone.

“Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” Christiansen said. “And I like that the America East allows that.”

Huchthausen sees it a little differently. She said that the initiatives are built from the bottom up, rather than the top down. As a conference, she said that the America East has more of a responsibility to complement the issues that the individual schools and student-athletes themselves find important.

“As a conference, there’s very few things that we can do if all of our members are not on board,” Huchthausen said.

“At the end of the day as a conference staff, we don’t enroll students, we don’t recruit students, we don’t hire coaches, and that’s the action that happens locally,” she said.

Huchthausen added that several factors may facilitate the top-to-bottom agreement and promotion of these initiatives. She said it is likely easier to get schools on board with these initiatives because eight of their nine member schools are public and located in the northeast –- a more progressive region with a diverse student population.

In addition to its partnership with You Can Play, the America East has recently partnered with LGBT SportSafe, an organization that is going from campus to campus in the America East and holding workshops with administrators and coaches. Huchthausen said that this partnership was prompted by administrators and coaches who were looking for more “education and training on some of the details, nuances and complexities that are involved with some of the issues that they have to deal with from an administrative standpoint.”

“There’s always more that can be done,” she said. “I think a conference like us partnering with organizations like You Can Play and LGBT SportSafe, in my mind, take it to another level, and really show a commitment behind just the words. And that’s what’s made me so proud of what our student-athletes have done — and our athletics directors. We don’t just talk about diversity and inclusion as being important. When we meet we actually back it up with our actions.”

And the America East’s efforts have gone beyond LGBTQ+ inclusion. The conference SAAC has identified mental health as the top priority for the league.

Since then, student-athletes from around the America East have taken to social media to share how they maintain their mental well-being. It is a small step, but Huchthausen said it is a way to combat the stigma surrounding mental health and promote mental health awareness.

Additionally, the league is working with administrators to form a mental health working group. They are surveying students, coaches and staff in an initial step to understanding key issues they need to focus on in order to promote mental health among student-athletes.

“So much of our time and energy, whether you’re on campus or conference, in the past has been spent on the competition part,” Huchthausen said. “Our student-athletes continue to face more pressure and demands than they ever have before from an academic, athletic, and social perspective. I think it’s incumbent on all of us as leaders to listen to them and provide tools and resources for them so that we can be as successful as we all want them to be.”