ST. PETERSBURG — A nationwide social networking movement to help teens deal with antigay bullying has gained a new supporter — the Tampa Bay Rays.
Manager Joe Maddon and players Johnny Damon, Sam Fuld, B. J. Upton and Sean Rodriguez will record a public service message called "It Gets Better" before the Aug. 23 Rays-Tigers game at Tropicana Field.
Eight other Major League Baseball teams have recorded similar messages for the campaign since June, all designed to stem depression, isolation and suicide among gay and lesbian youths.
"We know how difficult it can be for teens to fit in,'' a San Francisco Giant player says in one video. "You have an amazing future in front of you and an entire community behind you,'' says another. "We promise you it does get better.''
The campaign took root last September after several bullying-related suicides spurred Seattle writer and activist Dan Savage and his partner to post an eight-minute video on YouTube. They talked about their difficulties in high school — from getting beat up by their peers to rejection from their parents.
Don't get down, they advised gay teens. "One day you will have friends who will love and support you. The bigots don't win.''
Within months, thousands of other gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people submitted testimonials, telling teens they are not alone. Celebrities, politicians and organizations joined in, including President Barack Obama, the cast of Wicked and Apple employees.
The itgetsbetter.org website now holds more than 10,000 videos from around the world and has racked up more than 35 million page views.
In June, the Giants became the first professional sports team to make a video — a watershed moment, said Helen Carroll, sports project director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
Young people — both bullies and their targets — look up to athletes, she said. "It really does break the silence that has been so deafening in sports. You have the entire team saying (bullying) is not okay. We are not going to do this.''
Brian Longstreth, who owns a gay-oriented B&B in St. Petersburg, and St. Pete Pride director Chris Rudisill got the ball rolling with the Rays last month.
Longstreth ran into Damon and Fuld at a wine tasting and broached the idea. Fuld had already seen the Chicago Cubs video and "was very enthusiastic,'' Longstreth said. Damon also offered to take part.
St. Pete Pride had collaborated in the past with the Rays on special events and got quick cooperation on the video, Rudisill said.
The Rays looked at other clubs' videos and "felt they really present an impactful message against bullying,'' Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said Tuesday.
The Rays have not yet decided if the team will air any commercials or make use of the video, he said, other than cooperating with posting it on the "It Gets Better'' website.
Jeff Klein, at SwellFella Productions, will produce the video, Longstreth said. Besides Maddon and players, it will include a shot of fans seated in Section 134 shouting the message.
Rudisill, 34, said he played a year of high school football in rural North Carolina. The only openly gay student at the school was bullied so badly, he had to eat lunch in the counselor's office. "That was the school's answer to protecting him in the early 90's,'' Rudisill said.
Antigay slurs were common on playing fields and athletes "were normally the ones who bullied,'' he said. "You didn't get bullied by the chess club.''
Though estimates suggest that as many as one in 20 Americans may be gay or lesbian, none of the four major male sports leagues has an openly gay player.
That's what makes "It Gets Better'' videos by athletes so important, Rudisill said. Macho stereotypes filter down to colleges and high schools.
"Kids look up to these players. These are role models,'' he said. "When they say you really shouldn't bully people, kids listen.''
Rays fans may find the Red Sox video a bit eye opening. Third baseman Kevin Youkilis, known as an aggressive thorn in the Rays' side, shows a more sensitive nature while urging teens to get counseling if necessary.
"A lot of people get therapy,'' Youkilis says. "Myself included.''