Chicago Fire FC has marked Pride Month in at least a couple significant ways.
The MLS team recently announced the launch of the Play Proud League as a new addition to the Chicago Fire Rec Soccer (CFRS) programming. The aim of the Play Proud League is to be an inclusive, physically and psychologically safe space created for LGBTQ+ people, friends and allies to compete and build communityand playing ability doesn't matter. League play starts Wed., June 28, at the Fire Pitch, 3626 N. Talman Ave. The season will take place on Wednesdays through Aug. 16 with eight games per team guaranteed, plus playoffs. Also, the Fire will celebrate the club's annual Pride Night at Soldier Field on Saturday, June 10, at 7:30 p.m. during their home match versus Columbus Crew SC. As part of Pride Night, players in the Play Proud League will receive complimentary tickets to the match and will stand alongside FC Pineapplea supporter group of Chicago Fire Rec Soccer who help to connect the CFRS community to the Chicago Fire FC match-day experience at Soldier Fieldin unity.
Windy City Times recently talked with Fire FC Vice President and former pro-soccer player Evan Whitfield about the Pride's pro-LGBTQ+ moves, his own career and the lack of out male athletes.
Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Windy City Times: While you played pro soccer, you were in the 2000 Olympics. What was that like?
Evan Whitfield: Oh, man. It was amazing. The Sydney Olympics went really, really well. It was pre [9/11], so I feel like it was pretty open, in retrospect. Making the team was the fulfillment of a childhood dream and I was very proud. My parents came and they were very proud.
From a soccer standpoint, I was, like, the 17th or 18th person on the roster so I only played in one game, against Japan in the quarterfinals. The men's team was amazing; we lost to Chile in the bronze-medal game. I think it was one of the best runs for a men's team ever.
WCT: So you're vice president of equity, alumni relations and engagement. What do your duties entail?
Whitfield: So, actually, my title recently changed; I'm the VP of supporters, alumni relations and engagement. It's probably important to speak about why "equity" is missing. We have a new president so we're doing some internal restructuring and now we'll have a VP of people and culture, which I feel is a really positive institutional innovation. However, equity is still part of what I do, as I deal with more of the external aspects of the Fire's DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] initiatives, like Pride Night. The VP of people and culture will be involved with hiring processes and other internal items.
WCT: I'm wondering if you could talk about Pride Night.
Whitfield: Of course! And there's also the Play Proud League, which starts June 28. June 10 will [mark] our in-stadium announcement of that. Participants from the league will hopefully attend the game and we're working with FC Pineapple, one of the supporters' groups. That's the activation I'm most proud of.
And we'll also have the Pride activations that most teams have. We're giving away stylized Progress Pride flags with our emblem on them. We have a ton of different merch for sale, and a portion of the sale proceeds will go to Common Goal, a charity that helped inspire the Play Proud League.
We also have an artist singing in [Soldier Field] at halftime [and the Chicago Gay Men's Choir singing the national anthem]. Of course, the stadium will be decorated with Pride items.
WCT: So will the players be wearing Pride armbands, like last year?
Whitfield: Yes. There's a warm-up top that the players will wear. It's a white jersey with a rainbow pattern on the sleeve, and it says "Love Unites" on the chest with the team logo.
WCT: Earlier this year, the Chicago Blackhawks did not have its players wear Pride jerseys, citing safety concerns for Russian players. Do you foresee something like that happening with the Fire down the line?
Whitfield: I don't think so. We're a sports organization but, for a sports organization, I think we're relatively progressivenot politically, necessarily. We've had Pride Nights for several years without incident.
WCT: It seems like, since the time you've played soccer, sports team have become more progressive, overall. Why do you think there are still so few out players?
Whitfield: I think that soccer has certainly changed. For example, I was giving a DEI talk to some Soccer in the Community coaches yesterday. (Soccer in the Community is recreational soccer and it [conducts] camps all summer long.) There were 25 coaches there, from 18 to 25. This demographic of younger people is much more open and comfortable talking about issues of diversity and equity, and being accepting of the LGBTQ community.
While these younger people are more open, at the same timespecifically within male sportsthere's still a very hyper sexualized locker-room atmosphere with toxic masculinity. That, along with the stigma of being able to express your true self, is not conducive to coming out. It's a systemic thing. Being a cisgender, heterosexual man, I've seen that people aren't as open as they need to be.
WCT: So what's the Chicago Fire FC's message during Pride Month?
Whitfield: One of our organization's taglines is "We're all Chicago." As an organization, we endeavor to manifest those values. And celebrating Pride Month is one aspect of that. We're proud to fly the flag and we also have the Progress Pride flag on the bar at the top of our website. It's very important in messaging.
Then, organizationally, we have back-of-the-house stuff: the internal training, the inclusive leadership, the ERGs. There's our adult recreation soccer director, Lee Hannant [who's also the executive director of community soccer], who was one of the participants in Play Proud training last year. We use the inclusion cross-training we built there to think about ways that we can be even more welcoming. We're also looking into increasing soccer visibility within the LGBTQ community. Lee and his team deserve a lot of credit for bringing that into formation.
Tickets for the Fire's June 10 Pride Night match versus Columbus Crew SC at Soldier Field are available for purchase here. The match will be broadcast on Apple TV+ and transmitted locally in English on 890 WLS-AM and in Spanish on TUDN 1200 AM.
Also, interested participants can sign up for the Play Proud League at chicagofirefc.com/cfrs/playproud .