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Rainbow Laces: How University of Nottingham sports clubs made campaign big on campus

Sam Hawkins and Millie Doherty explain how holding a Rainbow Laces activation at the University of Nottingham had unexpected impact - among sports clubs, and on a personal level - and resulted in a nomination at the annual BUCS Awards

Sam Hawkins Millie Doherty, University of Nottingham Rainbow Laces
Image: Sam Hawkins and Millie Doherty were the LGBT+ Officer and Sports Officer respectively with the University of Nottingham Students' Union last year

Sam Hawkins was always hopeful that the sports clubs at the University of Nottingham would react positively when asked to wear Rainbow Laces.

However, he admits the overwhelmingly supportive response was "unexpected" to him as the UoN Students' Union's LGBT+ Officer - and he was even more proud when their work on the inclusion campaign was recognised with a nomination in the Diversity and Inclusion category at the annual BUCS (British Universities and Colleges Sport) Awards, which are being held on Tuesday night.

The activation a year ago encompassed 35 clubs and 20 IMS (intramural sports) teams in total and there was further support for Rainbow Laces in February during LGBT History Month, when rainbow 'zebra' crossings were installed on three campuses.

"We had over 1,000 pairs of laces to distribute, to teams such as rugby, hockey and lacrosse, and also our inter-halls ones as well," recalls Sam. "You'd come into the union office and everyone had them on. It started all these conversations about inclusive language, especially in sport, and we ended up raising over £2,000 for charity."

Sam worked closely on the activation with Hannah Webber, the university's Disability Sport Officer - up for a BUCS Unsung Hero Award - and also Millie Doherty, the union's Sports Officer, who was delighted at the amount of participation and visibility they were able to generate.

"We told the teams that we were going to do it as a union, and that if you want to get involved, please feel free to do so," she said. "And it just took off - a lot of the big sports really ran with it, we had IMS teams wearing them too, we had water polo players weaving them into their hats... it was a really visual day, it was fantastic."

University of Nottingham Rainbow Laces rugby
Image: The university's men's rugby teams were among those to show support by wearing Rainbow Laces

For Millie, seeing the strong message of acceptance across so many sports teams had a profound effect on her personally.

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"On the main day of the campaign, I saw the women's football team were all wearing their laces and being so supportive - just what you wanted it to be," she told Sky Sports.

"When I was younger, I'd played football and tennis and enjoyed both to the same extent. But when I first got to uni, I thought 'I'm not joining the football team' because I had these reservations.

"I wanted to be part of a uni sports club but I had it in my head that football would be one that, while having a lot of gay players, there was this stigma about them outing people - and I wasn't ready to come out.

"I thought it would probably be loud and aggressive and not the kind of environment that I was ready to go into, even though deep down I thought that it could be fun and I might fit in."

Millie joined the tennis club instead, and over time she came out to friends and fellow players and was welcomed. Seeing through the lens of Rainbow Laces that the football team really understood the meaning of inclusion made her reflect on her first impressions, back when she was a fresher.

"It made me feel I should have joined before, but back then I just didn't think that it would be that inclusive an environment," she explains. "But it was all along."

Millie has since been succeeded as Sports Officer at the students' union by Josie Jessop, who was women's football team president during the campaign activation. "To see Josie being so supportive, and all the girls accepting it and not playing up to that stigma that some people still give women's football, was really great to see.

"If it had that impact on me - someone who's quite confident, and in a very public role at the university - I can only imagine the impact it would have on a first year walking into the gym and seeing everyone there in Rainbow Laces and knowing sport at our university is a safe place for all. It was one of my proudest moments as Sports Officer to see that campaign take off."

Sam is now the union's Liberation Officer, helping to support and amplify the voices of students from marginalised backgrounds, including those from the LGBT+ community. A member of the trampolining club, the campaign's message resonates strongly with him too.

"I definitely struggled with my sexuality in sport," he says. "It goes back to when you're a kid, going to P.E. and changing rooms, getting homophobically abused.

"I used to change in the disabled loos because I was too scared. That snowballed on and I stopped engaging in traditionally boys' sports like rugby and football, and joined what was seen as 'girls' sports', like gymnastics - that's how I got into trampolining, because I'd go and watch my friends do it and enjoy it.

"You hear things said in those sports environments like 'that's so gay' and the f-word, used to mean that you were inferior somehow. Rainbow Laces is raising awareness of those issues that LGBT+ people face, and trying to show everyone at our uni and sports clubs that we strive to be as inclusive as we can, and also to increase LGBT representation and visibility in those clubs."

University of Nottingham Ladies Hockey Rainbow Laces
Image: The University of Nottingham is nominated in the Diversity and Inclusion category at the 2020 BUCS Awards for its work on Rainbow Laces

Nottingham is the UK's eighth biggest university in terms of student population, with well over 30,000 undergraduates and postgraduates, and through the activation itself and club social media channels, it's estimated that the campaign message reached around 14,000 students.

Millie believes other unis, their unions and their sports clubs can take learnings from the success of their Rainbow Laces activation.

"Tiny steps can make a massive difference," she adds. "Walking around the campus and seeing rainbow lanyards as well as laces, or replying to an email and the response comes back and it's got someone's pronouns in their signature footer - it's so easy to do but for an LGBT+ individual looking to join a uni sports club, it can be massive."

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. If you'd like to help inspire others in sport by sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally, please contact us here.

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