The locker room is a safe space for athletes.
The New York Giants are making sure that is true for all athletes.
The organization has teamed up with the You Can Play Project and last week paid a visit to the Hetrick-Martin Institute in Newark. The Giants kicked off their partnership in October and voicing their support with the "You Can Play" video.
Next they will host a special game day event and tailgate on Dec. 20, 2015, when the Giants take on the undefeated Panthers at MetLife Stadium.
You Can Play has made presentations to Giants players, coaches and management on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) inclusion and creating a safe and inclusive locker room environment. The Giants Foundation also provided a grant to support You Can Play's work in fighting homophobia.
Last week, Giants long snapper and co-captain Zak DeOssie, tight end Jerome Cunningham and assistant general manager Kevin Abrams visited HMI's Newark campus for a night of discussion, learning and, of course, football talk.
"It's about raising awareness to make the locker room a comfortable place for anyone who wants to play the game," said DeOssie. "Here at the HMI institute, we met with a couple of the kids who are part of this program.
"We're just here talking about different things and growing together and hearing stories and sharing how we deal with certain things in our life. It was a fantastic day. We met a lot of wonderful young children and teenagers."
Added Cunningham: "I just love the atmosphere. The kids were great, and it just feels like a family atmosphere as soon as I walked in the room. So it was nice to share my thoughts and my experiences with the kids."
Wade Davis, the executive director of the You Can Play Project and a former NFL player, has been a force in the initiative. Davis played for the Titans, Seahawks and Redskins in the early 2000s. He also played in NFL Europe.
"The You Can Play Project was founded by the idea that everyone deserves a safe space in sports," Davis said. "We work with pro sports, high schools and colleges to educate their players, their front office, and their staff about why it's important to create a safe space in sports for LGBT athletes.
"One of the real reasons to bring NFL players and young LGBT people in the same space is that so they can see they actually have much more in common than they do different. Like the locker room is a safe space for athletes, LGBT youth organizations are safe spaces for these young people. And if they can see that, wow, these athletes create a safe space just like I do in space, I actually have a lot more in common with them than I ever imagined."
While the Giants have the locker room, LGBT youth have places like HMI.
Founded in 1979 by Dr. Emery Hetrick, a psychiatrist, and Dr. Damien Martin, a professor at New York University, HMI is in 40 zip codes and expanding. The Institute provides everything from hot meals, tutoring, college prep, financial aid applications, links to medical providers, and more.
"We've always been friends of the Giants," said Ashawnda Fleming, Ph. D., the executive director of HMI: Newark. "Wade introduced us and introduced this opportunity to us. And so when we got wind of the opportunity, we jumped on it because our young people are such huge sports enthusiasts. And we know that sometimes being LGBTQ, young people feel like a career in sports is not for me. So it is so very important to have that relationship where they know that it's okay to be LGBTQ and even people who are in the professional sport arena are supporting them."
Annually, more than 2,000 youth participate in HMI Programs, and the impact reverberates through the communities.
"I see that when kids leave this, they go, wow, who knew, I should have been playing sports the whole time because these athletes don't fit the same stereotype that I imagined," Davis said. "Athletes are loving. The hallmark of most sports is family, is team, and that's what these spaces are for."