Illustration by Anastasiia Zubareva
Why did NYU Abu Dhabi’s intercollegiate athletes start wearing rainbow laces?
It should have been a night to celebrate. On March 4 2015, NYU Abu Dhabi’s sports teams played three key matches in the knockout stages of that year’s Abu Dhabi Intercollegiate Sports League season. At the tip-off for the men’s basketball championship game between NYUAD and Petroleum Institute, NYUAD had already won the women’s badminton final against Zayed University and a men’s football quarter-final against Al Ain University of Science and Technology. Eyeing the chance to celebrate a third consecutive win, NYUAD students filed into the bleachers in the performance gym in larger numbers than ever before during the first year of operations on Saadiyat Island. A group of seniors improvised chants from the top row in the stands and dedicated entire songs to the players on the field. I still remember the collective roar that rang out every time an NYUAD player sunk a free throw.
I also remember, however, an incident that happened early in the second quarter of the match. PI, trailing by double digits, won a stray rebound and sent two players running a fast break toward the NYUAD basket. A defender fouled the PI point guard who was carrying the ball upfield, spoiling a move that would have resulted in two easy PI points. The fouled PI player showed his frustration in a rant in Arabic and finished his run to score a layup that did not count. He then ran to the scorekeeper’s desk on the sideline and cursed at the student volunteer, an Emirati sophomore from NYUAD, for not adding two points to PI’s tally. The volunteer remained level-headed while the point guard accused him of incompetence. Then it happened: The PI player, perhaps realizing that no scorekeeper who understands the basics of basketball could count the layup, slid into a separate tirade and hurled homophobic slurs — khawal, khaneeth, looti — at the NYUAD student.
I stood five meters from the scorekeeper’s desk and followed from up close as the student volunteer lost his temper and yelled back. I stood by as the other four PI starters and most of their benched players ran to the desk and joined in the accusations. I saw others restrain the NYUAD student and break up the dispute. I knew the meanings and usages of khawal and looti well enough to sense what the dispute was about, but it took me weeks of reflection and bystander’s guilt before I fully realized what I had witnessed. An NYUAD student had volunteered his time on a Wednesday night when he might have studied for the upcoming midterm exams, and the players who benefited from his generosity repaid him in insults and defamation. A friend of mine had decided to show his support for ADISL and for a sport he cares about, and two dozen guests of our university not only accused him of being gay, but also implied that there is no room in intercollegiate sports for queer athletes. When the point guard called the volunteer a faggot, he attacked both the NYUAD student whose sexuality he took it upon himself, absent evidence or any knowledge of the person in front of him, to define, and the values of tolerance and inclusivity that our university stands for.
NYUAD won the championship by a large enough margin that ADISL’s records list the outcome simply as an “NYUAD win,” but for weeks after the victory, I agonized over what I had witnessed and over my own passivity. When I left for Abu Dhabi eight months before the basketball championship game against PI, many of my Danish acquaintances tried to dissuade me from moving to the UAE. Their arguments took two main forms: Emiratis, they argued, hold a backward worldview and treat deviations from Islam’s prescribed path as flaws in the deviant’s character that only punishment and shame can solve; and if you move there, they will force you into compliance and silence you when you should speak up against injustice. I had told my Danish acquaintances that they imagined a stereotyped, fictional UAE that bears little resemblance to the dynamic, inclusive country I saw, and that I felt confident enough in the strength of my beliefs to have sensitive conversations about social justice issues without undergoing the conservative indoctrination they feared I would suffer. After I stood by while my friend suffered excoriating homophobic abuse, I wondered if I had been wrong to place such confidence in the UAE’s inclusiveness and in the firmness of my resolve to fight injustice. I had seen intolerance, and I had failed to act.
At that year’s ADISL banquet, hosted by PI on 21 April 2015, my case of bystander’s guilt reached a fever pitch. Two representatives from the ADISL executive committee spoke about the unifying power of sports and shared their hopes that the organization can inspire student athletes to make lasting positive impacts on their teams, their universities, and beyond. After those speeches, the champions and runners-up in each of that year’s ADISL tournaments received medals and cheers. When our hosts accepted their silver medals in men’s basketball, they faced a standing ovation. I also won a silver medal as a member of the NYUAD men’s football team, that year’s runners-up in the second division of the men’s football league. Unlike my teammates, however, I passed the bus ride from Al Maqta to Saadiyat Island in silence. Nothing could break my melancholy thoughts. How, I wondered, could NYUAD students take a stand against defamation without challenging or disrespecting the country that has agreed to host them? Later that night, I asked my coach if NYUAD Athletics might consider buying rainbow-colored laces for the university’s intercollegiate athletes. To their credit, the Athletics department backed the proposal and ordered a bulk shipment of rainbow laces that arrived in time for students to lace up for the start of the 2015-2016 academic year.
The Rainbow Laces campaign began in 2014 when the U.K.-based advocacy group Stonewall partnered with several high-profile football teams to confront and combat discrimination in sports. Teams like Arsenal Football Club joined in Stonewall’s project to “make sport everyone’s game,” though the campaign has since moved beyond the confines of professional football or, for that sake, Stonewall. Numerous companies now sell multicolored laces to countless sports teams across the globe, and recreational athletes have laced up to show their support for the cause. The global spread of the Rainbow Laces campaign reflects an impulse to combat injustice that transcends national, ideological, and religious boundaries. The struggle for equality, it seems, is not limited to any national context.
It makes sense for NYUAD’s intercollegiate athletes to join this movement, because the Rainbow Laces campaign promotes a type of inclusivity that reflects the values NYUAD stands for while obeying the laws about social activism, protest and sexuality that govern our lives in the UAE. The political positions of each individual athlete aside, we strictly profess these beliefs when we lace up. First, no one deserves to have others speculate about their sexuality — to be called gay, as the Emirati sophomore who volunteered as scorekeeper was, by a stranger who considers that term a grave insult. Second, no one deserves mistreatment just because others question their sexuality. The UAE criminalizes sex outside of heterosexual marriage, but no law allows citizens or residents of the country to verbally abuse people who look gay, whatever that means. Third, if a person like the Emirati student in question were coming to terms with a sexual orientation or a gender identity that may cause them problems with their family or with the law, the last thing that person needs is verbal or physical abuse. Athletes who lace up may also hold certain beliefs about the rights these minority groups deserve — rights to express themselves, to date openly, to fall in love, to marry those loved ones — but we hold those views in addition to and separately from the three opinions we endorse by wearing rainbow laces. Whether we hope for more pervasive equality or not, we want to ensure that no one faces rumors and doubt about their sexuality, suffers homophobic jokes or experiences verbal or physical abuse, within ADISL and beyond.
Athletes on all of NYUAD’s intercollegiate sports teams may request a pair of the laces from the equipment issue center while supplies last — assuming, of course, that they wear laced shoes while performing in their respective fields. Since April 2015, dozens of NYUAD students have laced up; it took an hour to distribute twenty pairs among the players on the men’s football team at the start of the fall 2017 semester. The sheer popularity of the laces suggests the breadth of support in the NYUAD community for equality in sports. Seeing my teammates lace up restored my confidence in the community I chose to join when I moved to Abu Dhabi over three years ago. We really have built the inclusive community I hoped I would find at NYUAD. My acquaintances were wrong to think of the UAE as a country of unnuanced conservatism and intolerance. For helping me regain the faith I lost on March 4, 2015, and for their bold stands against defamation and for equality, I feel indebted to the NYUAD athletes who have already laced up or plan to do so. By wearing your laces, you show your commitment to a worldview that sees tolerance as a requirement, progress as an incremental process, and diversity as an end in itself. Thank you standing up and lacing up.
Nikolaj Nielsen is Sports Editor. Email him at [email protected]