Football is a sport for everyone. Though there is still work to be done in terms of inclusion and acceptance at all levels, the perception that football is a place for all people – regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation – is one that is growing stronger every day.
For proof, look no farther than two local LGBTQIA+ flag football leagues.
FLAG (Friends, Lesbians and Gays) Flag Football in Boston and the Providence Gay Flag Football League are both a part of the National Gay Flag Football League \[NGFFL\]. It's a league specifically for LGBTQIA+ people and allies to compete, have fun, meet people and develop through football.
While FLAG Flag Football was born in 1998, with the Providence league splitting off on its own years later, over the last four years, both leagues have had a special ally in their corner: the Patriots.
In 2017, President of Kraft Family Philanthropies Josh Kraft learned about the leagues when he was honored at a PFLAG event. It didn't take long for him to connect with the organizers, and that year, the Patriots became the first NFL team to sponsor the Gay Bowl, the NGFFL's annual championship, when it was hosted in Boston. The Kraft family and the Patriots Foundation donated $25,000 to sponsor the game.
"I was floored when I got the call from Josh and said they were they were going to do it. It added so much legitimacy to what we're doing as an organization, not just as athletes, but also in some of the things we do from a community perspective because there's a big community aspect of what we do," Dave Hamilton, who serves as an advisor to FLAG's board, said. "It also added some credibility nationally as well because Robert [Kraft] came to our closing event for Gay Bowl, and it had athletes from all around the country. He got up on stage and gave a speech that was one of the greatest speeches that I've heard from him and talked about inclusion in sports. That ended up sending a ripple effect throughout the NFL across the country."
According to OutSports.com, at the closing ceremony, Robert Kraft said, "We're going to do a lot to build bridges in America through sports." Josh Kraft echoed this sentiment this week.
"It's been a privilege to be associated with the league for the last few years. It's important to us because building bridges into every community is so important to us," he said. "Building a bridge with the LGBTQ+ community is obviously important to us. We're always hoping that we're good allies, but our true aspiration is to be great advocates. Anybody that's a fan of the Patriots, no matter who or what they are, is a fan of ours."
In the four years since the initial partnership, the commitment has proven true. After the Patriots became the first NFL team to sponsor the Gay Bowl, a waterfall of support has come from across the NFL and in other leagues. The following year, the Broncos supported the Gay Bowl, as did every home team of the subsequent host cities.
In addition, the Patriots have remained financial partners of both FLAG and the Providence Gay Flag Football Leagues, sponsoring both leagues' regular seasons every year since 2017.
"I think at the end of the day, it just gave that support to our local community and it just showed that at the national level, a national sports team wants to recognize us on that level and agree to set the tone throughout the rest of sports league," FLAG Commissioner Tony Ardolino said. "I think you see in the NHL, all the other sports leagues, they're also supporting the LGBT community. It just was groundbreaking at the time."
Of course, in any sports league competition is high on the priority list, but for many players, the leagues aren't just a chance to play. It's a community. It's a place for people to be authentically themselves. It's a way to find yourself with full acceptance.
"It's a special place. I think when you come to the fields that first weekend in the fall, a lot of people haven't seen each other in maybe three months, and it's just pure joy. Everyone's excited. Everyone just wants to be out there, and everyone thinks about the friends they made from the league and the memories you have," Ardolino said. "I met my significant other in the league. A lot of people have as well. It's just a really fun atmosphere, and everyone is just welcoming. When I think about the league, it makes me smile just because I know how much fun we all have doing it."
"We've seen people kind of come out of their shell a bit that were shy or timid just because they didn't feel like they can be their true selves," Hamilton said. "Now, they have that confidence to be able to excel on the field but also off the field."
For LGBTQIA+ folks in particular, sports may not always feel like the most welcoming place. Many miss out on the chance to play in youth leagues or in high school for a variety of reasons -- fear of being outed, bullying, anti-transgender laws. These flag football leagues are a chance to make up for lost time in a safe, comfortable and encouraging environment.
"This provided an outlet for folks that didn't get to play sports in high school to do so afterwards. That was a safe environment for LGBTQ and allies to play," Hamilton said.
Ardolino said he hopes there is a day when it ultimately doesn't matter who someone is, how they identify or who they love. Until that day, at least it doesn't matter on their fields.
"As a gay athlete, when we're in high school or college, whenever we took the field, it was always probably in the back of our mind that we would never want our teammates to know that we were gay. We are probably in the closet," he said. "A lot of us are probably in the closet because we didn't want to be looked at as inferior or whatever because of that. I think when we step on the field for flag football that goes away. There's no need to think about the fact that you're gay or lesbian or bisexual. It just doesn't matter."