Amid the jubilation in the Atlético Ottawa locker room on Sunday, a handful of players had two reasons to celebrate.
The club’s second win in June (a 2-1 triumph over Pacific FC thanks to Zach Verhoven’s late winner) didn’t just put them within a point of first place in the CPL; it also added another chunk of money to the team’s Playing for Pride campaign.
This year, four Atlético Ottawa players — Chris Mannella, Carl Haworth, Ben McKendry, and Sean Melvin — are taking part in the annual Pride Month fundraiser, in support of Athlete Ally — a nonprofit organization focused on making sports more inclusive for the LGBTQI+ community.
Essentially, the more success Ottawa have on the pitch in June, the more money they’ll raise; every point earned, every goal scored, and every clean sheet kept adds to the total figure participants will donate.
I'm proud to be @playingforpride in support of @AthleteAlly! Now more than ever, we need athletes using their voices to call for LGBTQI+ equality and inclusion. For the month of June: $5/team point, $10/goal (individual) $10/team cleansheet. @CapitalCitySG care to match? Link👇
This campaign is nothing new, of course; both Mannella and Haworth have been participating for over half a decade, dating back to their time as teammates with the Ottawa Fury — although they had to change things during COVID-19 when they weren’t really playing in June, they’ve nonetheless managed to keep the idea alive each year. The Playing for Pride concept itself began in 2017, when then-North Carolina FC midfielder Austin da Luz founded the campaign and reached out for teammates and opponents across the NASL and USL to join him.
“Just hearing about it from the jump, it kind of caught my eye,” Mannella recalled. “I’ve had friends growing up who identified within the LGBTQI+ community, and at the time not knowing — I didn’t know, rather. And then when they were more open to talking about it and coming out of their shell a little bit, and actually coming out, is when I really started to have a deep dive into their feelings and what they were going through at times when I had no idea. So with that kind of experience in the back of my mind, coming across this initiative was basically a no-brainer for me.”
Haworth, likewise, said it was a “no-brainer” for him to join the campaign; he’d played against da Luz for years in NASL, and Haworth was immediately eager for the opportunity to use his voice for positive change.
“Every single year you find new people that it means so much to, so they reach out personally,” Haworth added. “They really feel that we’re engaged with it, that we’re actually making a difference, so it’s really nice to see those stories come out, and those messages, whether it’s Twitter DMs, Instagram, people are taking notice and kind of saying thank you.
“But even just being a human being, it’s trying to raise awareness and educate those who maybe shy away from some of those more difficult conversations. It’s not important to be named in anything like this, it’s just important to keep that voice, keep that conversation going.”
Anyone who has spent time in a sports locker room — particularly in a men’s team — can attest that it’s not always the most welcoming place. Mannella himself shared that, sadly, he’s occasionally been met with confusion or even animosity for showing his support.
“I’ve told a little anecdote where guys were asking me if I was gay, because I was just asking them if they’d be a part of it, things like that,” Mannella recounted. “I’ve obviously heard homophobic slurs being thrown around, and even within recent history, so it’s just that stuff.”
He added: “I always say, what does sexuality have to do with anything? Like, why? Nothing like that matters when you’re on the field; we’re all playing 11 versus 11 with the same ball and the same goals and the same mentality, so I honestly can’t really understand the whole thing behind it. But I’m trying to help other people who may have a harder time with it, and that’s kind of our goal, is to make it more inclusive.”
The good news, of course, is that things are improving. Organizations like Athlete Ally, and individual players like Atlético Ottawa’s and many others around the world, are helping foster more inclusive and positive environments.
Nowadays, there are more LGBTQI+ role models than ever within professional sports — not just allies and outspoken advocates, but players that have had the courage to come out themselves. In soccer alone, 17-year-old Blackpool forward Jake Daniels recently made such an announcement, and in the North American game, current San Diego Loyal midfielder Collin Martin is openly gay.
In the women’s game, star players like Sam Kerr and Marta are role models to girls in the LGBTQI+ community — and of course, closer to home, Canadian international Quinn recently became the first openly transgender, non-binary athlete to win an Olympic medal.
Still, there’s undoubtedly work to be done, which is why it’s important for things like Playing for Pride to continue gaining traction.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the pressures of this game, regardless of what level you’re playing at, are immense,” Mannella said. “And that’s being yourself; I can’t even imagine when you’re having to deal with this huge battle off the field, trying to hide your true self. So that was kind of the driving force behind why I’d started it.”
We’re back and in full swing starting today 🌈 This year I’ll be joined by a few of my teammates, as we all aim towards a collective goal.I always connect with some incredible people during this time who drive me to continue every year.
He also explained that, as there is for most people, there’s a personal element to supporting this particular cause.
“Then most recently, within my immediate family now, my brother-in-law is gay and identifies within the LGBTQ+ community, so now it’s not only friends, it’s now my family,” Mannella added. “So it’s become a huge part of my life, and I just hope that I can help anyone who is struggling and may find themselves in a position where it’s just not easy to be in, and look for someone like myself to just say, ‘Hey, if you can play you can play. It doesn’t matter.'”
Ultimately, Mannella explained, it’s not just about the money he and his teammates raise — although that certainly is important to help fund Athlete Ally’s advocacy work and programs. He’s encouraging Ottawa fans, as well as fans across the Canadian Premier League, to add their voice to the cause.
“Any amount is encouraged; it doesn’t matter how big or how small, whatever you’re comfortable with,” Mannella said.
“And then please send me a screenshot of your donation and I’m going to try to throw some merch your way if you do that. I’m just encouraging people to donate to this over the next month. And even if you don’t feel like donating, maybe just support us on our journey and show us that regardless of a money situation, it’s more about coming together.”
Atlético Ottawa have three matches left to play in June, starting next Tuesday against York United.
Asked if the fundraiser adds any extra motivation to succeed this month, Haworth grinned.
“Yeah, I guess so,” he said, interrupted by a hearty “Vamos!” from a passing teammate in the victorious locker room.
“Maybe subconsciously a little bit, putting those things in there for the wins, for the goals, all that kind of stuff. If we win all five games (in June), blow the competition out of the water, I’m more than happy to contribute as much as we raise.”
For more information on Athlete Ally, including ways to get involved, visit athleteally.org. To learn more about Playing for Pride, or to donate, click here.