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With Upcoming Pride Night, Soccer's Chicago Fire Fosters Inclusion

by Christopher Ehlers

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 27, 2022

Evan Whitfield
Evan Whitfield   (Source:Chicago Fire)

With a Pride Night game this week, the soccer franchise Chicago Fire moves forward with its commitment to inclusion and diversity.

Founded in 2018 by Common Goal, an organization devoted to forging an equitable and sustainable future through soccer, Play Proud seeks to ensure that, across the world, soccer is a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. Arming coaches and staff with the right tools to be true allies and champions of inclusion, Play Proud has now reached 13 countries around the world, and they're only just getting started.

One Major League Soccer team that has doubled down on its commitment to fostering a truly inclusive space is Chicago Fire. Former Fire player (and current Vice President of Equity, Alumni Relations, and Engagement) Evan Whitfield is currently at the forefront of a lot of these initiatives. Fresh off a 50-hour training session in Los Angeles with Play Proud, Whitfield sat down with EDGE to talk about the Fire's ongoing commitment to inclusion and diversity, just on time for Pride.

About a month ago, you went to an intense 50-hour training course as part of Common Ground's Play Proud program. What was that like, and what did you get out of it?

It was the first of two 50-hour trainings, so the first one was in LA, and the next one is going to be in Monterrey, Mexico. The idea is to systematically make our spaces more inclusive to LGBTQ+ players, staff, fans, and youth. It's a cooperative effort within our own organization, so we need fan support to make this a truly inclusive space, we need the community partners that we work with to be on the same page to make this inclusive space. And then, of course, executives like myself, who have the ability to create policies and attempt to infuse the learning into our ongoing training is important to make inclusive spaces. In addition to that, there's the cooperation across the leagues. So in Major League Soccer, if the Chicago Fire are the only people who think—and I'm not saying they are—that it's a worthwhile endeavor to create safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people, that's not going to be enough, so Philadelphia Union is partnering with us in this endeavor. To have two clubs out of the 29 is not amazing, but it's a good start.

When did you all begin working with this organization?

After the murder of George Floyd—this was prior to me being with the Fire, of course—a lot of sports organizations made public pledges about combating racism and prejudice and hate in all different forms, which includes homophobia. Our initial collaboration was the Fire being a vanguard partner in the anti-racist project, which is similar in the sense that this is a multi-modular program to address racism in the soccer space; we have programming for executives, for coaches, for players, and then also for youth players and fans. The Fire along with Angel City Football Club and Oakland Roots, were the first cohorts to go through the executive anti-racist training. Shortly thereafter, I came on board in January 2022.

What is the feedback that you've gotten from your own club about this initiative?

The feedback is very, very positive, and there's also this desire for more. We did the program a month ago and we've already started formulating our inclusion strategies from the front office perspective, and we're working with a fan group and Chicago Scores to holistically integrate this into the different aspects of the club. It's been a really collaborative effort, and it's nice to see the group come together for it.

It really sounds like you guys are going above and beyond, certainly beyond what is customary in the sports world. But it's interesting how the idea of a Pride Night, which is pretty standard across most franchises and most sports, is still considered by some to be a radical idea. I've seen teams on Facebook post something about their Pride Nights and they have to turn their comments off because people write terrible things. So on one hand, yeah, Pride Night is an accepted and common thing now, but on the other hand, it still upsets a lot of people.

Yeah. You know that's one of the really innovative things about Play Proud United. Like you said, an organization can put out merch and make a public statement and have the star player do a PSA or something, but then you have the fans spewing all this vitriol. And the thing I really love about Common Goal's programming, and that's why Chicago Fire is so supportive of Common Goal is that each of us has a part to play in creating a better place. And if, if the Chicago Fire's front office is totally trained up and has the skills, and everyone's using their pronouns and all our hiring practices are super inclusive, like, that's amazing. But if our fans are making people feel awful about themselves, that's not okay, and Play Proud is attempting to address all those different levels; that's why we have the fan groups working closely with the front offices and with each other because they have a part to play, too...really getting the programming outside of only the organization and into the fans and the players and the youth and the coaches, because then each of us can enforce inclusivity in our respective spaces.

I'm glad that you mentioned that youth is involved as well, because a lot of these behaviors, a lot of the culture of intolerance starts at schools. How does what Chicago Fire is doing with Common Goal and Play Proud seek to address culture of sports in schools?

I'll only speak to what we're doing internally at the Chicago Fire. We have the Fire Pitch up on Addison, our adult and youth recreation facilities, and we'll be doing some branding there which will be all year, so there'll be flags and things like that where people know that this is a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community. In addition, we'll be [instilling] those norms into our onboarding. So, like, the referees that we use and the people who sign up to use the facilities are going to be made aware of our stance on inclusion.

Was Chicago Fire involved in these initiatives prior to you coming on board in a leadership role in January?

Yeah, so the Common Goal partnership started in the summer of 2020. Paul Cadwell—who is our Senior Vice President of Community Programs—is a really good example of what an internal champion looks like. He's a cisgendered, white man from England and one of his explicit desires is to truly make the Fire a club for all, so we're trying to be intentional in connecting with all the different aspects and demographics of our city.

I don't know what other sports teams are doing, but what you're doing sounds impressive. Is it your hope that Chicago Fire will emerge as leader in this field?

Thank you. I mean, I don't want to sound like Paul or myself or Ishwara [Glassman Chrein, President of Business Operations] are looking to create a name for ourselves. We're doing it because it's the right thing to do. In Illinois, we have obligations that are legal as part of being an Equal Employment Opportunity employer; and selfishly, our teams will perform at a higher level when we have inclusive spaces. That's just true. We're a soccer team, right? We want to be successful on the field and we want to be a place where Chicagoans want to come and spend their precious time.

Pride Night at Soldier Field will be held on June 29. Proceeds from Pride shirts purchased at Soldier Field will benefit Play Proud. Tickets available here.