A quick glance at the headlines on recent sports pages can give even the most star-struck athletics fan a healthy dose of cynicism. However, sports often provide a temporary departure from the mundane motions and rituals of everyday life. At times, sports can even provide a platform for positive societal change.
So when the Valpo men’s soccer team created the #oneVALPO initiative, which states that individuals will promise to show respect for all others regardless of beliefs or backgrounds, it lent assurance that, at least on one level of athletics, goodwill was being pursued. The initiative also calls for the elimination of disrespectful and derogatory remarks, education about other cultures, and a celebration of others’ differences. Knowing how it came to be is half the inspiration.
Last season, Coach Mike Avery‘s squad was in the midst of its early, non-conference portion of the schedule when a couple of his African-American players were subjected to racial slurs. Retaliation can be the knee-jerk reaction, but Coach Avery and his staff ultimately decided the pen was mightier than the sword.
From there, the men’s soccer club crafted the #oneVALPO promise. The men’s soccer team consists of players from around the world, including Jamaica, Guinea, France, El Salvador, and Canada, and the movement seemed appropriate for such a diverse group.
The promise reads:
“I promise to show respect for all others regardless of race, ethnicity, color, religion, nationality, age, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, physical ability, or mental ability.
I promise to refrain from using derogatory terms that may be harmful or disrespectful to others.
I promise to educate myself about cultures different from my own.
I promise to celebrate the opportunity to stretch and strengthen my own understanding of the world around me, and to engage and contribute to the diversity of my community.
I promise to celebrate the diversity I encounter just as I celebrate my own individuality.
I promise to remember that our true potential rests in our ability to tap into each of our unique characteristics, strengths and gifts, and to remember that together we are more than we are alone.”
For the head soccer coach, who is currently serving his eighth year at Valpo, this initiative hits home.
With the help of an agency three years ago, Coach Avery and his wife, Carin, head coach of volleyball, adopted their son, Kasongo, a young boy from Africa. “K.J.” has been a source of both joy and goodwill for the Avery’s as well as their biological son, Alex.
“People come up to us all the time and say ‘What a wonderful thing you’ve done.’ We weren’t trying to save the world by adopting him,” Coach Avery says. “We were trying to grow our family. We wanted to give Alex a brother. It’s enriched our family’s life much more. We’re the winners.”
In growing his family, Coach Avery also cultivated a more tolerant and unified student-athlete base. And all it took was a pen and paper.
Perhaps the best aspect of the #oneVALPO initiative is the simplicity behind it. Coach Avery asks for no money — just a signature and a promise to respect other cultures and backgrounds.
The men’s soccer team has been met with overwhelming support, both within the Valpo community and afar. All 19 varsity sports have signed the #oneVALPO pledge. Each opponent they’ve faced has signed it as well. The initiative has gained significant traction and raised eyebrows along the way. Coach Avery estimates more than 100 groups and/or individuals have signed the commitment, including members of the sorority and fraternity community and students, faculty, and staff across campus.
There is no pre-determined number of signatures sought for the #oneVALPO initiative, but Coach Avery does envision that Alex and K.J. will sign the pledge here as students someday.
He concedes this project is bigger than soccer, or even Valparaiso University. But through his actions as well as his words, he has fostered a culture of acceptance and tolerance. That culture has enabled Coach Avery and his coaching staff to enjoy a great deal of success on the field and on the recruiting trail.
“This goes right along with what the University is trying to achieve with extending our reach to international students. This is a wonderful institution for an international student. You get the personal touch of a smaller school, but you also get big-time athletics,” Coach Avery says.