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Life Lessons

How A Fat Baseball Ass And Four Lesbians Turned Me Into A Sports Fan

Jonquel Jones #35 of the New York Liberty accepts the MVP trophy after the team's 82-63 victory over the Las Vegas Aces in the 2023 Commissioner's Cup Championship game at Michelob ULTRA Arena on August 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I grew up hating sports, which is funny because I played a lot of them. I was a shy kid who loved reading and never had more than one close friend, a situation I thought was ideal and my parents thought was a problem. They decided to solve this problem with team sports. I started with three years of AYSO soccer, where I quickly learned that I not only lacked coordination and agility, but also that I feared the ball. At our games, I spent most of my time running back and forth while only pretending to look alert, and my parents drove me home in disappointed silence. Sometimes my dad would admonish me—you never even touched the ball—and I would bite my tongue before I could tell him that, actually, this was by design. I did not want to touch the ball!

Soccer was a bust, so I turned to basketball, where, once again, I feared the ball. There were a few years of gymnastics lessons, where I struggled to touch my toes and fell off balance beams. A stint of ice skating lessons, where I was too scared to jump into the air lest I impale myself with my blade. Playing sports, which required me to feel present in my body, seemed to rouse a deeper, more elusive insecurity, which is that I did not particularly want to be aware of my body at all. But I could not name this at the time, and so I soldiered on to try tennis, volleyball, swimming, and cross country before my parents, exhausted, said I could finally give up. Deliriously relieved, I did.

In the years following, I lived a sports-free life. I joined extracurriculars that, in retrospect, were far more existentially harrowing and morally haunted than sports, such as volunteering to give students parking tickets and cosplaying as a lascivious Benjamin Franklin in a congressional simulation. But at least I knew I chose to do them. The only sports games I attended were the ones I worked at, drizzling lattices of cheese over nachos inside the snack hut as football roared on outside.

This is all to say that, for years, I assumed the ship of sports had long since sailed from my life. If I were ever meant to like a sport, surely it would have happened by now. I'd had 28 years of chances! So when Tom Ley emailed me at noon on March 30, 2022 to ask if I would be around for "a quick phone chat sometime tomorrow," and at 9:30 a.m. the following morning offered me a job at Defector, I felt as if my lifelong animus toward sports had coalesced in a kind of situational irony where, suddenly, my dream job was to write for a sports blog. When I told my parents about my new job, they thought I was doing a weird and elaborate prank.

Although I felt as if I had lived my adult life in opposition to sports, so much so that I first introduced myself to my partner as a "non-sporting dog," I wanted to be open-minded to sports, however incomprehensible it seemed to me. My new co-workers were all so kind that I wanted to learn about their culture. I decided I would try to get into three sports, even if only ironically, so I could read my comrades' writing with a more nuanced understanding and be an ally to sports.

My first pick was baseball. I'd met most of the Defector gang at a charmingly underwhelming Brooklyn Cyclones game, and my friend Dash invariably texted me photos of one of the fattest asses in baseball (the ass belonging to Rowan Wick, who previously played for the Cubs and is now a part of the Toronto Blue Jays organization), so my interest was already piqued. I went to a few Cyclones games with friends, one of whom has a small fleet of softball trophies, but found the rules of the game itself surprisingly confusing. How was I supposed to discern a good pitch from a bad one, and therefore know when the hitter was out or got to walk to first? Why was it so rare that anyone actually hit the ball? Is that too much to ask of a high-A team, to see someone thwack a ball good and hard and high into the sky? I generally had fun. Very little of that had to do with the actual sport, but rather the cinematic backdrop of glittering roller coasters, a rigged condiment race, and the one extremely gay cheerleader. As a last-ditch effort, I went on a double date to Coney Island Pride Night, but we had to move seats when the straight couple seated next to us, obliviously wearing their free Pride Night jerseys, kept asking if the couple we were with were sisters.

My next pick was F1. Some friends had gotten hooked by Formula 1: Drive To Survive, and I found the Defector guide to Formula One's Sweeties and Enemies to be an incredibly helpful beginner's guide. I wish all sports came with a list of Sweeties and Enemies. I watched a few episodes of Drive To Survive and found both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen annoying and the actual driving vaguely tedious. It made me think of the montage in Cars where Lightning McQueen heroically drives 200 laps: As the lap count ticked upward, I thought to myself, surely there could not be any more laps for Lightning McQueen, who has already driven so, so many laps! And yet there were always more laps. Similarly in F1, each time the strange cars whizzed scarily around the corner, I found myself thinking, is the race over yet?

I told myself I would try three sports, so I wanted to pick the last one more carefully. My partner plays tennis, which felt like an obvious option, but I find the experience of watching tennis to be fairly tense, as if I am holding in someone else's fart. Like many other dykes who came out around 2016, I was a casual supporter of the USWNT, but the prospect of streaming their games on TV or in a loud bar seemed like a lot of work. And then, last winter, I got an email that meant I didn't have to choose. Defector's own Jasper Wang, of the Jasper Wang School of Business, had season tickets to the New York Liberty and wanted to invite friends along.

I saw my first Liberty game with Defector during Intern Week, where we all hung out and tried our absolute best to act normal around our wonderful summer intern, Abigail. I caught the second half of the game and, upon entering the Barclays Center for the very first time, found myself extraordinarily sensorily overwhelmed. This was not a Cyclones game. There was music blaring, songs switching every 10 seconds as the ball changed teams, and the jumbotron kept demanding I make some noise for the National Grid Noise-O-Meter. I dutifully screamed to contribute my noise to the National Grid Noise-O-Meter, but could barely hear myself in the crowd. I watched the jumbotron distort people's faces using Snapchat filters: drooping mouths, bulging noses, and the occasional, mirrored cyclops eye. Thankfully, Lauren gave me a life raft in the game by telling me two of the Liberty players were gay: Stefanie Dolson, who is 6-foot-5 and goes by @bigmamastef on Instagram, and Courtney Vandersloot, whose wife, Lauren told me, is her former Chicago Sky teammate. I watched the rest of the game focusing only their jerseys. When they scored, I screamed.

My next Liberty game was with Jasper, Laura Wagner, and my partner T. The Liberty were playing the Phoenix Mercury, and I felt a rush of pride as Brittney Griner walked on and we all cheered. It was T's first Liberty game and I wanted to tell them about the gay players, but I could only remember @bigmamastef so I googled "who is gay on ny liberty" and saw an article titled "A Complete List of All 39 Out Gay Players in the WNBA." I clicked, obviously, scrolled only to learn there weren't just two gay players on Liberty; there were four.

Sometimes when I experience moments of unusual luck or serendipity in life, I think about this one scene in CJ Hauser's essay "The Crane Wife," when Hauser and a group of people on a trip studying whooping cranes guess how many wild pigs they might see on their drive home. The group usually saw four pigs, so Hauser bet three to be safe, while someone else bet 20, which felt way too high and hopeful. But then their group saw 20 pigs. "I realized how sad it was that I’d bet so low. That I wouldn’t even let myself imagine receiving as much as I’d hoped for," Hauser writes. Learning there were not just two but four gay Liberty players—counting Jonquel Jones and Breanna Stewart—was a 20-pigs moment. By my third Liberty game, I was hooked.

Still, I found myself asking the same question you might have: Is the mere presence of lesbians in a sport all I needed to be a fan? Queer athletes play all kinds of sports. But there's something about a Liberty game that feels like the experience caters specifically to lesbians; everyone else in the crowd is merely an ally. A good portion of the smiling faces on the jumbotron are wearing snapbacks embroidered with GAY in all caps. And every fan they invite down for the weird sponsored shooting challenges looks like they could fix up a car. I didn't realize how good it would feel to be at a game, and in a crowd, that felt explicitly and joyously queer—the closest I've felt to Lauren's perfect vision of a real Pride Night.

Because I am dense and stubborn, I figured being a Liberty fan was probably the closest I would come to inviting sports into my life; I already felt unrecognizable to my childhood self. But last weekend, I felt another internal barricade fall as I watched part of an all-trans 3v3 soccer tournament in Brooklyn organized by the comedian Marley Gotterer, who runs an Instagram account @transsportsgirl that offers a beautifully funny challenge to bigots who seek to ban trans people from sports. As the teams warmed up at the parade grounds south of Prospect Park, some friends and I who had come to watch kicked around a soccer ball. None of us were dressed to play and our initial kicks were reluctant. But on that bright and clouded day with a sub-60 dew point, on a field of trans people (and a smattering of allies) who had come together to play sports, I realized that for the first time in my life, I was having fun while kicking a soccer ball. At the end of the tournament, as the players clasped hands to form a human tunnel to run through and reform on the other end, I was struck by the beauty of this gesture—creating the infrastructure to make sure everyone is seen and celebrated. If this is what sports can be, I'm all in.

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