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Challenges of organizing local sports leagues

Permit process, lack of fields often vex D.C. players

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Randall's Island Park, gay news, Washington Blade
Randall's Island Park, gay news, Washington Blade

New York City created a 273-acre local sports and recreational playground floating on the East River. Could D.C. find similar space for its local amateur athletes? (Photo courtesy of the Randall’s Island Park Alliance)

D.C. is home to one of the largest and most organized LGBT sports communities in the world. The list of LGBT local sports teams has grown to more than 30 clubs and the athlete base is well over 3,000 members.

Those kinds of numbers would not be possible without the leadership that is demonstrated by members of each of the clubs.

But the success of local organizers doesn’t mean they don’t encounter obstacles to growth. Some of the challenges facing them include lack of playing space, high costs for space, accessibility and the local permit process.

FIND MORE OF THE WASHINGTON BLADE SPORTS ISSUE HERE.

The permit process, especially for a new team forming, can cause major frustration for those not familiar with the process. There are cross-jurisdictional issues and some of the entities that may present a challenge are the National Park Service, the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of General Services Realty Office as well as the facility or school that the space sits on.

One person who knows the permit process well is Alex Bearman, executive director of District Sports who manages leagues and playing space for 240 primarily straight soccer teams at 15 different locations in the area.

District Sports primarily uses playing fields that are run by schools, which means that their process includes being approved by the athletic director, the vice principal or the principal.  “There is a lot of hand-holding, showing up and talking,” says Bearman. “You can make it through the permit process and then be turned down by the facility because there are just not enough incentives for the facility to offer their space. There is also the added cost of paying for a maintenance man to be on site.”

Nick Napolitano leads the permit process for the Federal Triangles Soccer Club and agrees that the schools do not have enough incentives to risk having their fields torn up by an adult sports league.

“You really have to establish a relationship with the school principal and prove that you will respect the condition of their field,” says Napolitano. “In the past we have had to enlist the help of D.C. Council member Jim Graham just to get our foot in the door. Even when you get to that point, it is still hard to budget for the fees as they can fluctuate.”

When the DC Gay Flag Football League (DCGFFL) began, it targeted the fields near the FDR Memorial as their home base and came up with no results during the permit process.

“We ended up going through our roster of players just to find someone who knew someone or at least knew the process,” says JJ Johnson, league commissioner. “Even after securing the spot, we were still confronted by a park ranger on the first day.”

DCGFFL, D.C. Gay Flag Football League, sports, gay news, Washington Blade

D.C. Gay Flag Football plays at Carter Barron Fields. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

The DCGFFL outgrew that field almost immediately and is now ensconced at the Carter Barron Fields on Sundays. The group considers themselves lucky to have access to such a large amount of space as they have grown to 276 players.

Carter Barron is federally owned, administered by the National Park Service, and permitted by the DC Department of Parks and Recreation.

“It was very confusing at first,” says Johnson. “We now show up at the permit office several times a year just to shake hands and chit chat. We want them to know who we are and that we are appreciative.”

Martin Espinoza of Stonewall Kickball agrees that the permit process can be stressful as the kickball league faces two permit renewals each year. They generally have their calendar set up for the upcoming season without knowing if their permit will be renewed. To be safe, league registration is always scheduled after the permit approval date.

Currently, the kickball league plays on Sundays at Stead Park Field. When the club started in 2010, the city was not allowing use of Stead Park on Sundays. “We were very fortunate,” admits Espinoza. “The city made an exception to allow us to play on Sundays.”

Stonewall Kickball, sports, Stead Park, 17th Street, Washington Blade, gay news

A gay kickball league is among the groups that make use of Stead Park. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Stonewall Kickball has seen incredible growth since its inception with a current member list of 550 players. Because they were unable to secure a permit for an additional night, they have spilled over into the predominately straight DC Kickball League, which holds the permit for Thursday nights at Stead Park Field.

“We are hoping to grow this season by securing additional time on Sundays,” says Espinoza. “Even though we arrive at the permit office with all of our paperwork on the first day of renewal, it is still a waiting game. Youth, senior and city programs are looked at first. Adult sports come last.”

Stonewall Kickball will face another obstacle in 2014 when the $1.6 million renovation of Stead Park Field will begin. It is unclear at this time whether they will have a place to play or not.

In March of 2013, a new LGBT sports team joined the fray in the struggle for playing space.  The Washington Scandals Rugby Club has not yet found a field to call home. Being new to the process, they are running into the same obstacles that seem to plague all new sports teams.

“We have been looking for space on weeknights in the District and there is nothing available for adult sports groups,” says Arc Riley of the Scandals. “The field we are practicing on is so small that half of our 40 players are standing on the sidelines while the other half practice.”

The struggle with getting a response from the Department of Parks and Recreation has led the Scandals to start looking for space in Montgomery County for the winter months. “We are hoping to be back in the District by spring,” says a hopeful Riley.

Faced with a similar space shortage back in the 1990s, New York City, along with the Randall’s Island Park Alliance (RIPA) created a 273-acre sports and recreational playground floating on the East River.

Randall’s Island boasts more than 60 sports fields, accommodating sports such as soccer, baseball, softball, lacrosse, field hockey and rugby.  Also included on the island is a world-class track stadium, a tennis center, golf facilities as well as cultural and natural areas.

Formerly used over the centuries for a range of public facilities including a boy’s home, a hospital, and a home for Civil War veterans, the island was first designated as a park in 1936 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. By the early 1990s it was in serious disrepair.

RIPA was formed in 1992 as a 501c3 non-profit organization to work with New York and local communities to transform the island. Today, Randall’s Island is New York’s premier recreational destination and home to dozens of sports leagues for youth, adult, senior and the LGBT sports communities.

The bottom line in the D.C. area is that although the permit process can be tedious, the lack of playing space is the primary obstacle in accommodating the ever-growing sports community.  The overwhelming success of the Long Bridge Park sports complex in Arlington in November 2011 is a perfect example of the need for more sports space in the area.

The possibility of 190 acres opening up in the future at Metro accessible RFK Stadium is giving many in the sports community dreams of a dedicated sports complex in Prince George’s County.

RFK Sports Park anyone?

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Celebrating sports history: DC Gay Flag Football’s 25th season

Head of District’s premier league says it’s ‘groovin’ to its silver anniversary

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The DC Gay Flag Football’s 25th season is underway. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

What started when gay football fans got together in the 1990s to play their favorite sport is now a D.C. institution with 270 players in 20 teams spread over three fields, playing in both fall and spring. 

“Get off the bench,” shouts the slogan on the league’s website. “Get in the game!” 

The D.C. Gay Flag Football League turns 25 years old this month and is considered not only the premier league of its kind in the District, but is recognized across the country for its players, organization, and spirit.

“The way we run our league and the way we compete make us stand out relative to the rest,” DCGFFL Commissioner Logan Dawson told the Washington Blade. 

For those who don’t know flag football from any other kind, the difference is easy to spot: There’s no contact allowed. As the rules say, “That includes tackling, diving, blocking, and screening. Instead, players wear flags that hang along their sides by a belt. To ‘tackle’ the person in possession of the ball, the opposing team needs to pull one or both of their flags off.” There are a lot more rules, but that’s the one that really sets it apart from tackle football. 

The sport itself dates back to World War II and its origins have been traced to Fort Meade, Md. 

What’s the secret to the league’s longevity? “I think we attract and hold on to great athletes who are highly competitive, not only on the field, but also, in our professional and personal lives,” he said. Dawson, 32, plays flag football as well as manages the league. He’s currently single, but says his first love is the weather. 

“I knew in second grade that I wanted to be a meteorologist,” said Dawson, who moved to the District to be a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. 

A prolific swimmer since high school, he came out as he started grad school at Purdue University in Indiana in 2012. In an op-ed appearing in Outsports in 2014, Dawson wrote about competing in his first Gay Games in Cleveland along with a group of other gay swimmers from Colorado, and left that experience determined to join a gay sports league. 

He found it in the fall of 2018 in the DCGFFL, the same year the league’s Generals team won Gay Games XVIII. The league supports up to five travel teams, which take part in annual tournaments nationwide. It also hosts a summer tournament each year in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

“There’s a good amount of participation by people who played in the league from the very early days,” Dawson said. “I think we’re just in the sweet spot, where we have a lot of the original participants, a lot of new players, and we’re just kind of grooving right now.”

The first group gathered at Francis Field near Dupont Circle in 1994. Three years later, another group formed to play just steps from the Washington Monument Mall. They came together in 1998 to form what is now the DCGFFL. 

“For the majority of those seasons, we mainly had one division that played that was co-ed,” said Dawson. “This is our second season that we’ve had a Womens+ Division made up of [cisgender] women, trans and nonbinary individuals.” The Womens+ teams are called the Senators. 

Jayme Fuglesten is director of the Womens+ Division and has played in the league in most seasons since 2011.

“The DCGFFL has been a major part of my adult life,” she says. “I came out while playing in the league in no small part because of the love and support of this community.”

Why does she think the league has been such a success to have lasted 25 years?

“I think the league has been so successful because of its focus on inclusion and community,” she says. “I remember being so surprised in my early years when JJ and so many others would just come right up to me, hug me, and welcome me. And that really hasn’t changed in the 20+ seasons I’ve been around. It also continues to grow and respond to the needs and desires of our players. One example of that is the new Womens+ division, which gives an additional space for people who identify as womens+ to play and cultivate stronger relationships.”

DC Gay Flag Football plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a dance party and silent auction at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Next month, the DCGFF will send both Generals and Senators to Gay Bowl XXIII in Seattle. “That’s going to be the first time we’re going to have two Womens+ teams at the Gay Bowl,” Dawson told the Blade. “It’s reflective of the new generation of the league.” 

Earlier generations had trouble attracting new players. As the Blade reported in 2019, what had been a steady number of 20 to 22 teams dropped dramatically to 14, its lowest roster since 2011. The league’s leadership turned it around with new recruiting events, new sponsors, changes in their social event locations, changes to their player draft and a change of venue for league play beyond Carter Barron fields in Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. 

Brentwood Hamilton Park in Northeast Washington is now home to the recreation division and Randall Field south of the Capitol is the league’s third venue. 

Just like every facet of society, from coast to coast, what happened next hit the league hard. “COVID happened in spring of 2020,” recalled Dawson. “Everything shut down, and we did not play for what amounted to three full seasons for a year and a half.”

But once the world emerged from quarantine and lockdowns, flag football players started flocking to the DCGFFL. “We’ve had probably over 150 new players join our league in the last two years,” he said.

One thing is certain, said Dawson: Despite the name, not everyone who plays in the gay flag football league is LGBTQ+. 

“It’s a really great community. There’s a straight couple that’s married and will be soon having a child in the next month or so,” Dawson said. “They met playing in the league, just like we’ve had gay couples who meet in the league and eventually get married and have children.”

Prominent among the league’s many sponsors is the NFL hometown team, the Washington Commanders. “They are highly supportive of us, not just financially, but also publicly supporting what we are, and our mission,” Dawson said. 

This current NFL season is the first since 2021 without an out gay player on the gridiron. That’s when Carl Nassib became the first active pro football player to come out as gay. 

(Washington Blade file photo by Adam Hall)

While Dawson said, “I’m sure there are more out there” who have not yet come out, Nassib’s retirement makes this anniversary of the DCGFFL even more significant. 

“It’s unfortunate people still feel they cannot be out while they’re playing and doing what they love, but that’s the reason why something like the D.C. Gay Flag Football League is so important,” he said. “To show that there are gay and trans athletes who exist and love playing sports.”

The league plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a dance party and silent auction at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23 starting at 8 p.m. Check the website for ticket information.

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Carl Nassib announces retirement

Openly gay NFL player made history when he came out in 2021

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(CBS News screenshot)

Carl Nassib, who made history in 2021 when he became the first active player in the National Football League to come out as gay, announced Wednesday he is retiring at age 30. 

“This is a bittersweet moment for me,” the free agent wrote in a post on Instagram. “But after seven seasons and just over 100 NFL games I am officially retiring from football to focus on my company Rayze.” 

Rayze is a mobile platform that connects people willing to give of themselves with those who need it most, born of an experience in Tampa, Fla., where Bucs players volunteered as mentors to kids being held in a nearby juvenile detention center. Rayze’s website says the company serves to “shine a light on opportunities that need volunteers, while making nonprofit engagement, volunteer recruitment and donating as simple and intuitive as possible.” 

“It really feels like just yesterday starting out as a walk-in at Penn State,” Nassib wrote in his post. “Football has given me more than I ever could have imagined. I can truly hang up my helmet for the last time knowing I gave it everything I had.” 

Ever since he came out in 2021, the former defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has become a philanthropist for the LGBTQ community, especially for queer youth, personally donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project. That year, the NFL matched his donation, and in 2022, Nassib himself matched donations dollar for dollar, up to $100,000.

According to the Bucs, Nassib played in 99 regular-season NFL games with 38 starts,  recorded 187 tackles, 25.5 sacks, 45 tackles for loss, 59 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, one interception and 19 passes defended. In 2016, he the Cleveland Browns drafted him with the second pick in the third round. At Penn State, Nassib was a star player, leading the nation in sacks and forced fumbles during his senior year with the Nittany Lions in 2015.

“It was not an easy decision. It really, really wasn’t,” Nassib told People magazine in an exclusive interview timed to coincide with his Instagram. 

“This would have been my 23rd football season. I’ve been playing football since I was eight years old, and I’m really excited to move on to the next chapter of my life,” he said. 

Nassib says he began considering retirement last season before becoming a free agent, when he said he was “staying at the Bucs facility until 9 p.m. every night working on Rayze.”

“I feel like it’s my calling and it’s what I’m meant to do,” Nassib says of the app. “I’m really excited to move on to the next chapter of my life and to give Rayze everything that I have.”

In July, he posted that he had accepted an appointment to the board of directors of the local United Way chapter in his hometown of West Chester, Pa. 

Nassib said he is also going to work with the NFL in a new role, in matters related to the league’s philanthropic endeavors and its “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

“I think that I can provide a very rare and specific view of how life is for an out gay player, and I think that there are some amazing opportunities that I can also learn,” he told People.

“Maintaining that relationship shows that the NFL is continuing to support me. They’ve supported me so much over the last two years, and I really couldn’t have done it without that support,” he said.

Nassib said the NFL’s offer to utilize him in this new role “continues to show people that you can be yourself and compete at the highest level.”

But what he’s most excited to do with his time now, he told People, is to spend the holiday season with his family and his boyfriend, retired Olympian Søren Dahl. 

“I’ve spent 11 out of 12 Christmases away from my family, many of them alone in my apartment,” said Nassib. “I haven’t spent Thanksgiving with my family since 2010, so I am really, really looking forward to spending time with my family, my friends, and those special moments. And that’s something that I’ve been looking forward to for years.” 

That’s one of the many reasons why he wrote on Instagram: “I really feel like the luckiest guy on the planet.”

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Close out the summer with Team DC

United Night Out held at Audi Field

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A scene from last year’s United Night Out. (Washington Blade file photo by Kevin Majoros)

Team DC and Federal Triangles Soccer Club will host “United Night Out” on Saturday, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m.

This event will celebrate the LGBTQ community and cheer on the Black-and-Red as they take on the Philadelphia Union.

Team DC is the association of LGBTQ sports clubs in the greater Washington region with 42 member clubs (including FTSC) with more than 7,000 participants. Team DC sponsors the Pride Night OUT Series, which helps organize Pride nights with all local pro teams. In 2023, Team DC will sponsor 14 different Pride nights, including the United Night OUT. 

Tickets are $30 and can be purchased on Team DC’s website

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