Fire membership in Play Proud United isn’t just to check a box

The Fire are members of the Play Proud United initiative that aims to make sure soccer is a comprehensively safe space for LGBTQ+ youths and fans. And they’re not doing it just to check a box for community activism.

“It aligns with our values,” Evan Whitfield, a former Fire player and the team’s vice president of equity, alumni relations, and engagement told the Sun-Times. “We’re for all of Chicago, and that obviously includes the LGBTQ+ community. Doing a collaborative effort across three countries and four leagues very much aligns with our spirit of collaboration in attempting to make everyone feel welcome in our space.”

As Whitfield said, the initiative includes the Fire and Philadelphia Union, the USL’s San Diego Loyal and Oakland Roots SC, Pacific FC of the Canadian Premier League, the NWSL’s Angel City FC and San Diego Wave, and Tigres UANL of Liga MX. In April, the Fire sent a four-person congregation made up of front-office members and representatives of fan and community groups to a 50-hour session in Los Angeles where they were trained with exercises, programs and tools to take home so they can educate others. There will be another 50-hour session this December in Monterrey, Mexico where Tigres is based.

The original Play Proud program was founded in 2018 by Common Goal, which works to push anybody involved in soccer to come together to create equality. Play Proud, launched with United States women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe, has the goal of teaching people involved in sports how to build inclusive spaces.

One additional motivation for the Play Proud United initiative is the 2026 World Cup that will be hosted by the United States, Canada and Mexico. The coalition of teams want that event to be free of homophobia and welcoming for all.

“It’s important to really over-communicate and over-share the fact that this space is safe for everyone,” Whitfield said, “and that sports are for everyone.”

Unfortunately, the Fire got a reminder of how important programs like this are during their March 5 home opener. Whitfield said he was made aware that some fans were using a homophobic chant that has beset Mexican soccer. And though there have been efforts to rid soccer of the shout that roughly translates to “male prostitute,” the process isn’t complete.

The Fire have a process to stamp out the chant, and when it was heard in March at Soldier Field, Whitfield said the club determined that supporters “self-policed” the incident. He gave them kudos for creating an inclusive community to call out the chant and not allow it to spread.

“The chant is a blight on the global game and it’s obviously one of the reasons Play Proud United was created, to combat that very issue,” Whitfield said.

That chant is one example of how hard it can be to change people’s minds and habits. Whitfield is aware of how challenging that can be.

That doesn’t mean Whitfield and the Fire are shying away from trying and dedicating time and money to the effort.

“Change is the hardest thing that any of us collectively or individually can endeavor to do,” Whitfield said. “It doesn’t mean that we don’t attempt to do it.”

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