Rivals team up for a cause

More than 300 people attended the panels in Berkeley and Stanford, Mikayla Lyles estimates. Courtesy of Mikayla Lyles

During a week when rival teams dig in and prepare, Mikayla Lyles and Toni Kokenis are reaching out. During a week when programs with a history might be talking a little trash, Lyles and Kokenis want to start a dialogue.

Lyles, a senior guard from Cal, and Kokenis, who played three seasons at Stanford before concussions forced her off the court, carved out time this week -- in the run-up to the annual back-to-back games between the Bears and Cardinal -- to create a shared space for inclusion and a conversation about acceptance.

The two athletes have been working together for the past five months, creating a pair of panel discussions on support for LGBT inclusion in sports that took place on the Cal and Stanford campuses earlier this week.

Both have been vocal activists on the topic on their own campuses. Lyles was particularly drawn to the idea of two rivals coming together.

"Every school has a rival, but that doesn't mean you can't unite on the ground level, wanting to fight for something together," Lyles said. "We want to start the conversation because in the athletic culture, there's been a lot of silence to this point. It's been extremely silent."

Cal hosted Tuesday night's panel discussion, entitled We A.R.E. (Athletes Reaching Equality) Pride, and the conversation moved to Stanford on Wednesday.

Panelists included Pat Griffin, the founder of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network; Wade Davis, a former NFL player and director of the "You Can Play" project; Helen Carroll of the National Center for Lesbian Rights; and Nevin Caple of Br{ache the Silence, an campaign for LGBT voices, role models and allies in women's sports. The event also included photo galleries and a documentary showing.

Lyles said there were more than 200 people at the Cal event and 100 people, a majority of them students, at Stanford.

"It was incredible," Lyles said. "The turnout was beyond what I imagined."

Kokenis, who helped found Stanford Athletes and Allies Together (StAAT), a student group dedicated to supporting LGBT and allied athletes in the spring of 2012. StAAT initiated conversations with the Stanford Athletic Department , which led to the "You Can Play" video, which featured 28 athletes, coaches and Stanford administrators.

When Kokenis saw Lyles' participation in a Br{ache The Silence video last summer -- the video also featured former Cal teammate Layshia Clarendon -- she made a call to Berkeley.

"I texted her and told her we've been doing similar things at Stanford," Kokenis said. "I wanted to see if we could work on something together. I happened to be in Berkeley that weekend, so we met for coffee the next day."

Lyles and Kokenis agree that the topics of inclusion and acceptance can be "taboo" in many college athletic departments.

"People walk on egg shells," Lyles said. "We are just putting it out there. We need to figure out why it's so silent and why people aren't comfortable. And we have the opportunity to say something."

Kokenis said she feels the Stanford campus has always been an accepting, inclusive place, but found the athletic department can be a place where silence was fostered instead.

"Silence isn't equal to acceptance," Kokenis said. "The only way to make sports more accepting is to talk about it. I feel like we have perfect opportunities as student-athletes at some of top schools in the country. Athletics still has to catch up with the rest of campus and the rest of the world.

"This isn't about making athletes come out, it's about fostering an environment where it doesn't matter. We need to deal with it, instead of pretending it doesn't exist."

Cal coach Lindsay Gottlieb said that Lyles, one of her team captains, came to her with the idea and she gave her blessing for the two players to proceed -- with the caveat that Lyles also keep her focus on the games to be played Thursday and Sunday between two ranked teams.

"Someone like Mikayla is trying to get everything out of her Cal experience," Gottlieb said. "Here's a bright young woman interested in a lot of things outside of basketball. She's interested in issues of social justice and equality. She came to me with an extensive proposal, and it was really well-thought out. I wanted her to run with something that's important to her."

"I hope we always have a culture of inclusion in our department, not because we are trying to be a poster child, but because it's the right thing to do."

Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer appeared in the "You Can Play" video and said she also supported Kokenis and Lyles.

"The work that Toni and Mikayla have done on this project is a great example of how great students, and great minds, from rival schools such as Stanford and California can come together to educate their communities on the topic of inclusion," VanDerveer said. "This is a very important and timely subject in the sports world and we're very supportive of Toni and Mikayla as they continue to bring awareness to it."

Kokenis and Lyles hope they are starting something that can be brought to campuses across the country, using rivalry games as opportunities to shine a light and foster change.

"We want this to be the first of many," Kokenis said. "Cal and Stanford are just the first ones."