The Hartford Yard Goats are breaking new ground in the minor leagues and partnering with the 'You Can Play Project' for Monday night's game against the Binghamton Rumble Ponies.
The 'You Can Play' organization is dedicated to celebrating LGBTQ athletes and helping them feel welcome in sports at all levels, according to the organization's website.
The Yard Goats will be the first team in Double-A and one of the first in all of minor league baseball to specifically host a night in partnership with You Can Play, said Jillian Svensson, Vice President of Development and Operations for the You Can Play Project.
You Can Play's current partners include: the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, the Canadian Football League, the American Hockey League, the National Women's Hockey League, and Major League Lacrosse.
The organization was started after the death of Brendan Burke, son of NHL executive Brian Burke and brother to former NHL scout and NHL director of public safety Patrick Burke. Brendan worked for the Miami University of Ohio athletics department as a student-manager. Brendan had come out publicly in 2009, shortly before his tragic death several later in a car accident at age 21.
Brendan had quit the sport of hockey because he was discriminated against in the locker room, Svensson said. His family wanted to honor Brendan and his courageous steps to fight locker room homophobia so they started the You Can Play Project in 2012.
"You Can Play was created to honor Brendan and the work we feel he would be doing," Svensson said. "It really honors his legacy as an advocate in this space." Svensson said the organization works with sports companies to create inclusive atmospheres for players, coaches, and fans.
Dana Feigenbaum, the Yard Goats promotions manager, had partnered with the You Can Play Project when she worked for the America East Conference. Every team in that conference, including the University of Hartford got fully behind the organization.
Feigenbaum said she wanted to bring a similar message of inclusion to Dunkin' Donuts Park and hopefully across Double-A baseball. So she pitched the idea to the Yard Goats front office.
"I brought it up and I wasn't sure how people were going to react to the idea," said Feigenbaum. "But everyone on the front office staff got behind the idea, no question. They all think it's a great idea. And everyone is so positive about it in the office."
"Dana should get so much credit," Svensson said. "I think it's a testament to the work that the America East Conference does as well that one of their people who then left the conference and went on to another job was so inspired and affected by the message that they took it and wanted to effect change in their new environment. I think it's so incredible to be in new spaces. That's the power of what we do. Our strength is in our partnerships."
While many organizations host Pride nights, the Yard Goats wanted specifically to work with You Can Play focusing on diversity and inclusion in sports.
"I think it's really important to help kids learn [the message] at such a young age," said Feigenbaum.
Svensson said that sports have the rare opportunity to directly impact social change. She hopes that exposing the You Can Play message to the fans at a Yard Goats game will help spread the organization's goals to kids in the community.
"For us to have an opportunity to promote our message and our mission in front of a new audience is exactly what's needed," Svensson said. "We want to inspire people to bring the You Can Play message into their world and then think how can I integrate that. Being able to be with the Yard Goats is so new and exciting and we can build on that in future years."
For You Can Play Night on Monday, the Yard Goats are giving away rainbow-colored bracelets that say 'Hartford Yard Goats' and 'You Can Play." Several Yard Goats players are also participating in a Public Safety Announcement video that will play at the ballpark and on social media. The team will sell shirts at the team store that have the Yard Goats logo in rainbow colors. Fans will also have the opportunity to sign a banner that says "You Can Play."
"Some of the players asked if when we give out the bracelets that they can get some to give to their familes," said Feigenbaum. "It's just a really important cause to everyone."
"We know that sports has not been a safe space and continues not to be a safe space in many regards for LGBTQ youth," Svensson said. "So the opportunity to bring this to the community of Yard Goats fans is amazing." The You Can Play project believes that players serve a unique role as role models in society and can help share the message of inclusion.
"The Yard Goats are definitely taking the lead on this [in minor league baseball]," said Svensson.
Feigenbaum said the Colorado Rockies, the parent club of the Goats and affectionately known around DDP as "Dad", has a pride night where they will host You Can Play representatives.
"It's really important to show that we don't discriminate in the locker room," said Feigenbaum. "Everyone is an athlete and treated equally whether they're a girl or a boy, gay or bisexual."
"Our message is really it doesn't matter your sexual orientation or gender identity," Svensson said. "If you can play, you can play. All that should matter to your teammates is what you're producing, if you're a good teammate, and if you have the passion and skill."