Sports

For NCFC player, activism has become part of his game

The messages keep pouring in, to the point where Austin da Luz isn't sure what he'll find when he picks up his phone after two hours of training. The fundraising campaign the North Carolina FC midfielder started is beginning to take on a life of its own, beyond anything he imagined.

Something good came out of da Luz's anger over House Bill 2 and the way it left his home state portrayed nationally. Desperate to do something, he pledged to donate to LGBTQ rights organizations for every game played, game started, goals and assists and asked other soccer players, fans and supporters' groups to join him. Last summer, Playing for Pride raised over $13,000. This year, who knows?

In two days this week, the number of players signed up doubled to more than 70, and there are still more than two weeks to go before things officially kick off.

“Last year was more people I knew or had one degree of separation,” da Luz said. “This year, it's gone completely off the rails.”

Da Luz doesn't even know most of this year's participants, other than by reputation. There are U.S. national team players, men and women both, like Brad Evans, Chris Wondolowski and Becky Sauerbrunn. There are fellow players from NCFC and the NC Courage and from MLS, the USL, NWSL, PDL and NPSL, even Iceland and Australia and the U.S. Paralympic National Team.

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Austin Da Luz (6) of North Carolina F.C. moves the ball against Joseph Holland (8) of Houston Dynamo during a 2017 game. Fabian Radulescu

All because da Luz – a 30-year-old straight, cisgender male – was angry about HB2 and wanted to do something to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community. Da Luz grew up in Winston-Salem, where his father is the women's soccer coach at Wake Forest, won an NCAA title playing for the Demon Deacons and has spent the majority of his career making plays in the NCFC midfield, outside of a few stints in MLS. North Carolina is his home, and he felt like it needed defending.

“I've been to plenty of marches,” da Luz said. “I was outside the governor's mansion when HB2 passed. I just wanted to take ownership a little more and try to make an impact in the community I'm a part of, which is the sports community. This seemed like a good way to do that.

“It's all about just having people's backs for me. We're all people, cliché as that sounds. I wasn't happy with the response to HB2 from outside of our state. I wasn't happy being spoken for or spoken of in the way that we were.”

Da Luz was also playing for the right franchise. NCFC and the Courage already have Pride Nights in June, which is LGBTQ Pride Month, and unlike some other professional sports organizations, they encourage their players' activism — standing behind Courage captain Abby Erceg when she walked away from the New Zealand national team to protest a gender gap in pay and support, for example.

“I think soccer, in part because it's an international game, is best when it brings the whole community together to support their local club,” NCFC and Courage owner Stephen Malik said. “We celebrate the diversity of our community. As it relates to players, I do encourage them to be involved in the community and to support any causes important to them. In Austin's case, he has great passion about supporting the Pride movement and we applaud him in that effort, just like we support those that want to stand for faith or family or other values more traditionally associated with our area. All are welcome.”

Playing for Pride was a summer-long effort last year, and the money raised went to the Human Rights Campaign, earning da Luz 2017 NASL Humanitarian of the Year honors.

This year, he honed the time commitment down to June and upped the recommended contribution: $5 per game played, $4 per assist, $6 per goal. (“Sometimes I throw a little bonus in there,” da Luz said, “if I feel like I played well.”) Da Luz directed this year's funds to Athlete Ally, a sports-focused LGBTQ rights advocacy group that has a strong base in the soccer community.

“The wave of players from around the world who are committing to Playing for Pride is an inspiration, and Athlete Ally is honored to be this year’s beneficiary,” Athlete Ally spokesperson Taylor Carr said.

That partnership added a dollop of legitimacy to his efforts and greatly expanded their reach.

“That's the most fun part of this for me,” da Luz said. “I'll pick up my phone, and there's a message from Wondolowski, and the next one is from some PDL kid I don't know. The reach is incredible.”

As more people join, from across the soccer world, this becomes less about da Luz and more about what he's trying to accomplish, which is fine with him. He can see the results on Twitter, where the occasional negative comment at @playingforpride is drowned out by messages of support and appreciation.

“Seeing that from different perspectives is what it's all about,” da Luz said. “And ultimately just having the LGBTQ community's back. Hopefully the end goal is to have more people tell their story from that community, because I just think that ultimately is where we need to end up and where we'll learn the most, when we hear more of those stories.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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