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National soccer coaches association takes aim at homophobia

High school soccer coach Dan Woog and others will present LGBTQ issues at the National Soccer Coaches Association of America convention this week, part of the association's larger anti-homophobia initiative.

Yousef Shahin: Man of the Match at New Canaan.
Yousef Shahin: Man of the Match at New Canaan.
Kim Lake

I've always been proud of my sport.

Soccer attracts intelligent, creative people. Because there are no timeouts, no real "set plays," each athlete always thinks for himself. And because it is truly an international game, players meet teammates and opponents from around the globe. Americans who love soccer grow up understanding that they are part of a worldwide fraternity. They embrace the wide variety of personalities, cultures - and lifestyles - that soccer exposes them to.

The game is not perfect. High-profile players make dumb comments - racist, misogynistic, anti-gay. Fans chant stupid things, as they do in every sport.

But I've been out as the boys soccer coach at Staples High School in Westport, Conn., for over 20 years. It's been a fantastic experience, with positive stories outnumbering negative ones by a staggering amount.

Still, I've never been more proud of my sport than I am now.

The National Soccer Coaches Association of America is the world's largest soccer coaches' organization. Over the past year, it took huge steps to ensure that its three core values -- "Learn. Participate. Belong" - include LGBT members. At the same time, the NSCAA is reaching out to straight coaches, empowering them to be allies. The association is sending the message that it's not only the right thing to do. It will make them better coaches, too.

A few sports organizations have talked about the importance of addressing LGBT issues. As far as I know, the NSCAA has done more - and done it more enthusiastically - than any other coaching group.

The impetus came from the top. Before last year's annual convention in Indianapolis, incoming president Jack Huckel asked if I'd like to work with him on an LGBT initiative. We met. Mike Curry - chair of the NSCAA's diversity umbrella group, which includes committees for black, Hispanic, Native American and female coaches - was there. He threw his weight behind adding LGBT coaches to the mix.

I left Indiana as the new chair of the NSCAA LGBT task force. But, Huckel warned, he wanted more than talk. By the end of his year-long term, he needed concrete action.

Our committee included Mike Bryant, a Ph.D. candidate in athletic leadership at the University of Washington; Hugo Scheckter, a club coach at George Washington University; Lynn Berling-Manuel, chief marketing officer of American Youth Soccer Organization; and diversity experts Angela Hucles and Stephanie Huckel. We got right to work.

First, we created a mission statement:

The NSCAA is committed to helping all members learn the importance of inclusion of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) community; encouraging participation in all activities by LGBTQ coaches, athletes, referees, administrators and fans; and welcoming all allies in our organization's ongoing effort to be a leader of inclusion in the sports world.

It doesn't get more inclusive than that, including the inclusion of "Q." We had several long discussions about that. The consensus was that it was important to recognize the "Q" element - plenty of folks fit that category - but to use it as our go-to acronym would cause confusion among people who are familiar with "LGBT," but not "Q." So we use it occasionally, and define it always.

Huckel presented our mission statement to the NSCAA board of directors during the summer. They voted unanimously to support it.

At the same time, we created a page for the NSCAA website. We headlined it "Gay, Lesbian and Ally" - for simplicity's sake - and filled it with what we hope is interesting information.

Under "Frequently Asked Questions," we pose situations a coach might face: "My player just came out to me, what do I do next?" "Should I come out to my team?" Below, we offer suggested responses.

There are links to outside resources, including sport-specific blogs. There is also (this is very cool) a link for one-on-support. Coaches can email - anonymously, if they wish - a question or concern. Members of our committee will respond, via email or phone, helping the coach work through the issue.

The NSCAA staff at Kansas City headquarters went all in designing the page. It takes a team to win, and NSCAA's support team has been outstanding.

But we wanted even more of a presence, so our group asked if we could present a workshop at the annual convention. Once again, the response was an instant "of course!" On January 17, 2014, in Philadelphia, along with sessions on defensive principles, goalkeeping techniques and the like, the NSCAA will sponsor a session called "Create Safe Space for LGBT Athletes: Be a Winning Coach." Our interactive session, showing attendees how to create inclusive atmospheres on their teams. We'll pose tough scenarios, get feedback, challenge coaches - and empower them.

Of course, what's a convention without a party? A few hours after our workshop, we'll host the NSCAA's first-ever reception for LGBT coaches - and, of course, our allies. The NSCAA is footing the bill.

We will all have a ball.

Dan Woog is the varsity boys soccer coach at Staples High School and a former National Youth Coach of the Year. He is the author of "We Kick Balls: True Stories of the Youth Soccer Wars," and the "Jocks" series on gay male athletes. You can follow him on Twitter.