LOS ANGELES – People filled a Los Angeles park on a recent Saturday afternoon for a kickball tournament, but no one was as worried about the score as they were about the friendships and fun. Music played in the background of people shouting words of encouragement, even to the opposing team, laughs and jokes.
The participants are part of the Varsity Gay League, which is a recreational sports league with a mission to create a supportive and inclusive sports environment. Although competitiveness was on display during the tournament, at the end of the hot summer day, everyone was looking to have a good time.
Will Hackner, the league’s owner and CEO, felt a need in his life to have somewhere to meet other members of the LGBTQ community outside the bar scene and set out to find a solution.
“I myself wasn’t meeting people, I wasn’t having the best of times,” Hackner said. “I felt it was all about drinking and partying, and I was just like, ‘I want to have fun.’”
But creating a sports league was not something Hackner always had in mind. In fact, he was not into sports growing up.
“I was a bullied kid, horribly bullied, tragically bullied, terrified of sports,” Hackner said. “I was small. I was picked on. I was attacked. I didn’t go to the gym past freshman year because someone broke my wrist and the gym teacher laughed at me. So, I was not a sports guy.”
As he got older, he began to realize the benefits of participating in sports.
“Not just the activity, not just the camaraderie, not just the building confidence and all those beautiful pieces,” Hackner said. “But it also creates structure in your life that you can use as a foundation for other elements such as how to talk to people, how to stay active, how to be young, how to communicate positively and effectively.”
Fifteen years ago, he and a friend planned what became the first of many events to come. It started with a game of capture the flag in the park.
“Fifty people showed up and we said, ‘Wow, there must be something here, a kernel of something,’” Hackner said. “And that put us off to the races.”
Hackner founded the organization in Los Angeles in 2007. It has since grown into a national organization with sports leagues and events in 22 cities with over 40,000 athletes. Leagues include a variety of sports for different interests. One of the cities now home to Varsity Gay League is Phoenix, where members can play in kickball, tennis, dodgeball and pickleball leagues.
Phoenix league manager Wes Scruggs understands the importance for people to feel a sense of community and belonging, and he’s happy to help others find that.
“If you can ever think of a time when maybe you didn’t feel comfortable with a certain group of people, you didn’t feel like you belong there for whatever reason, it’s really a terrible feeling because we as humans are wired to want to be accepted,” Scruggs said.
Scruggs has been a football fan for as long as he can remember. He grew up attending NFL games with his dad but said as a kid trying to figure out his sexuality, the environment was not always positive for him.
“It’s just the super hypermasculinity and stuff, like toxicity,” Scruggs said. “As someone who’s trying to figure out their sexuality and growing up, it’s like, ‘Oh, gosh, OK. I guess it’s not, like, good.’”
Now Scruggs is able to take his own experience and use it to create a positive environment for athletes in the league.
“I just love to turn that on its head and like, no, everyone can play no matter who you are,” Scruggs said.
Varsity Gay League emphasizes that despite its name, the organization welcomes everyone to join, even those who are not part of the LGBTQ community. Scruggs said about 15% of the organization’s athletes are allies.
“First and foremost I think what we as an organization try to keep in the forefront is everyone’s welcome,” Scruggs said. “And when we say that, we mean it.”