3 Takeaways From the Connect Sports Diversity Events Summit

By Matt Swenson, February 8, 2019

If one word can sum up the Connect Sports Diversity Events Summit in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it is acceptance. Inclusion is not just a tag line for the event planners and suppliers in attendance at The Riverside Hotel.

This intimate conference had the feeling of family. Even though each person appeared different from one another, the entire summit knew to embrace who they are, regardless of being able to fit the societal norm.

Here are some takeaways from this inspirational and, often, emotional meeting.

Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover

Someday, Will Waller may write an autobiography about his unlikely path to winning bronze twice for Team USA’s Paralympic basketball team. The cover will almost surely be eye-grabbing, but Waller is the epitome that appearances can be deceiving.

Waller, whose clean-cut look complete with omnipresent glasses projects the image of someone who has been very effective in human resources at Fortune 150 companies. He also happens to be in a wheelchair. Both facts happen to be true. The fact he was a victim of gang violence is obviously sad but does not stretch credulity, either. But, what’s shocking is Waller was part of an inner-city Chicago gang when he nearly died from gunshot wounds. As stereotypes go, he does not fit the part. Waller is aware of this, and it makes his story all the more powerful.

We’re all lucky Waller was able to turn himself around to be in a position to share this reminder: Everyone has challenges—even if it’s not obvious from the outside.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Many in the LGBTQ sports community would acknowledge event organizers could work together better. That’s the reason Connect Sports hosts this event, after all. The organizers are united in their belief for equality and in using sports as a conduit to bring society together.

Leslie Nixon, senior director of community affairs for the Miami Dolphins, and Genya Adesso, vice president of marketing for the Florida Panthers, stand as ready partners from professional franchises. The Panthers held their Pride Night during the conference, for instance.

Nixon and Adesso shared a key message: They are there to help, but event planners need to come with a plan of action. Without specifics, pro teams who can increase exposure on key issues are going to sit on the sidelines. They want planners to be partners.

Be True to Yourself

Nike chose its words wisely when creating the #BeTrue campaign. Learning to love who you are as a person—regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, etc.—is easy to say but hard to practice. It remains aspirational for many.

Brooke Crain, one of the world’s best BMX riders (she came in fourth at the Rio Olympics), can testify to that. In fact, she did at the summit. Giving her first keynote address, Crain shared what it was like to reveal she was a lesbian—to her parents, coaches, teammates and fans.

It took over a decade for Crain to share her story, and many athletes never address their sexual orientation for a number of reasons. The reaction Crain received, at least when she was younger, was not always positive. But it was clear she is now poised to step into a position as a role model for young athletes struggling to make the same choices Crain had to make.

While her story is unique, the message and the reception the summit attendees gave her were universal. The underlying theme of the summit stands strong: always be true to yourself.

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