Starting Over: 'We Are Portland' Awards signals reboot for UP Athletics after Wally's

By Kyle Garcia | March 30, 2019 12:16pm

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The 'We Are Portland' Awards will be held at the Chiles Center this Sunday.

This Sunday, the University of Portland athletics department will host the ‘We Are Portland’ Awards at the Chiles Center, a rebranding of what was known last year as the Wally’s.

Last year, the Wally Awards were mired in controversy after former UP tennis player and Wally’s emcee Goutham Sundaram made several controversial remarks during the event. The incident grabbed the attention of national media and spurred two apologies from University President Fr. Mark Poorman, who attended last year’s awards.

The ‘We Are Portland’ Awards will have several changes from the Wally’s, including a variety of hosts and emcees presenting awards instead of just one singular host. The program will be restricted to only members of Athletics and the 16 varsity teams at the University of Portland, whereas last year a few people from other areas of campus were invited, such as chaplains. All 16 varsity programs will also be recognized for the first time as opposed to just a select few student athletes. 

Athletics placed an increased emphasis on inclusivity for this year’s event. Vice President of Athletics Scott Leykam and Senior Associate Athletic Director Karen Peters said a priority this year was ensuring that all varsity programs felt like they were equally involved.

“The focus is on an event that is inclusive and respectful for all of our programs and all of our student athletes,” Leykam said. “We realized that coming through last spring that we’re much better together than we are apart.”

Inclusivity has been a main focal point for the department in the rebranding process and a larger part of the “We Are Portland” theme. Changes to the awards show that highlight this focus include a pre-produced music video that all the teams were a part of that will be shown at the beginning of the program. The tradition harkens back to the original Wally Awards, which also featured a music video. 

Along with this, every head coach or a representative from the program will present an award throughout the night. The awards vary, from Most Inspirational Player to Rookie of the Year. The idea is that every program gets the opportunity to be recognized for their accomplishments this year.

“We learned a lot of things from (the Wally’s),” Leykam said. “But one thing looking back at the event is I want every program and every student athlete to feel like they’re represented as a part of that night.”

Vice President of Athletics Scott Leykam watches a men's basketball game.
by Jeff Braccia / The Beacon

All of this circles back to the ‘We Are Portland’ theme. It has been an impetus for the Athletics department throughout the 2018-19 academic year. Athletics decided on the motto over the summer, using the theme as a way to push department unity and help the varsity programs at UP think of themselves not only as individual teams, but as a whole department representing the university.

The rebranding of the Wally’s into the ‘We Are Portland’ Awards is just one of several other changes Athletics has made over the school year. Athletics also replaced their usual annual spring talent show for student athletes with a community service day, which will take place on May 9, when the department hosts their Special Olympics Field Day with Special Olympics of Oregon.

The department also increased education efforts this year for athletes regarding consent and Title IX. All varsity teams had meetings with the Title IX team, the Department of Public Safety and the Green Dot Project in the fall. All athletes on campus attended the “Talk About It” sessions on Sept. 2 as well.

Athletics also updated the syllabus for HPE 108: Life Skills for Student Athletes, which is a required one-credit class for freshman student athletes. The class included lessons on sexual misconduct prevention, diversity and campus resources and policies.

National speakers Lynn Kachmarick and Mike Domitrz were also brought to campus, with Domitrz hosting the “Can I Kiss You?” event on Oct. 10 and Kachmarik speaking to SAAC, HPE 108 and senior staff about team culture and personal intervention.

The events of last year’s Wally’s influenced how they changed the event, Leykam said. After the Wally’s, Leykam talked to other WCC schools at various events looking for advice.

“One of the things I love most about college athletics is we’re all going through the same thing,” Leykam said. “You’re always trying to learn and ask for ideas. Not just ‘how did you succeed?’ but ‘when things didn’t go well what did you learn from it?’”

UP athletics learned several things about how they can improve after the Wally’s. One aspect specifically was execution and planning. 

“We looked at some of the administrative details,” Senior Associate Athletic Director Karen Peters said. “In previous years, we have and had a great staff and we had a lot of people doing their best work to pull off a really fun event for the students and what we didn’t have was kind of one person steering the ship.”

The 'We Are Portland' Dinner was one way Athletics has attempted to create unity within the department.

That one person for the ‘We Are Portland’ Awards will be Peters as the event manager, making sure that the program is followed. As Peters described it, Leykam focused on the vision of the program while she focused on the minutiae. She checks to make sure that dates add up, deadlines are met and that everything on the to-do list is crossed off.

Leykam and Peters both said that the ‘We Are Portland’ dinner on Sept. 2 set a precedent for how events should run in the future. Leykam said that the event was “one of the best they’ve ever held from a logistics standpoint” and that they want to emulate it this spring.

Head women’s soccer coach Michelle French attended the event last year as the newest hire in the department. When Sundaram made his remarks last spring, the former Pilot athlete was “a little bit caught off guard” by the comments and was shocked that a student athlete would say such a thing.

“I mean, you’ve got thousands of students here and hundreds of student athletes, and I think it’s important for us to focus on how those athletes, as a whole, are representing the community,” French said. “And I think that pretty much across the board we have incredible student athletes that really emulate what it means to be a Pilot and continuously shine and show what an incredible university this is.”

During the controversy, the women’s soccer team posted on both Instagram and Twitter a statement saying that the soccer program will “strive to uphold our core values and beliefs in moments where injustice, discrimination and sexism is displayed.” The post, which the men’s and women’s soccer teams did, for French was meant to show that the program didn’t stand by the remarks at the Wally’s.

“I think we wanted out student-athletes to feel that they had a platform to express collectively how they felt about inclusion or supporting people from all walks of life,” French said. “So it was an important discussion that we had and I’m really proud of our team for feeling confident to make that statement on social media.”

This is partially why the theme of ‘We Are Portland’ is something that resonates with French. French echoes the sentiment that the programs are not separate from each other.

“I think it’s a simple statement,” French said. “But like I said, I think it gives us the opportunity to not think of each program as something separate from each other.”

In the end, the important thing in the eyes of both Leykam and Peters is that the event is a fun time for student athletes where everyone feels involved.

“It’s really ‘what are our goals?’” Peters said. “Well, our goals are we want our student athletes to have fun, we want every program to be recognized and for them to have the spotlight and ‘how can we do that?”

For athletics, it wasn’t just about changing and tweaking the Wally’s. For them, it was about learning from the mistakes of the past and starting over.

“We want to return this event to something that the university, the department, and the student-athletes are proud of,” Leykam said. “We haven’t and won’t forget what happened, we’ve learned from it, and we’ll continue to learn from it.”

Kyle Garcia is the sports editor for The Beacon. He can be reached at garciaky20@up.edu.

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