A new documentary, F(l)ag Football, takes viewers inside the world of the National Gay Flag Football League as 26 teams from around the country fight for the title of Gay Bowl Champions. It’s a film that seeks to tell a story about athletes – these particular athletes – and the personal sacrifices they’ve made to be able to play the sport they love. But it’s so much more than that, too. It’s a film that shatters stereotypes about both athletes and gay men, and gives the world an image of gay men that has never really been showcased before. Seth Greenleaf’s film adds nuance and depth to the idea of what it looks like to be a gay man, and an athlete.
The film spends most of its time focused on two teams, arguably the best teams in the NGFFL: the New York Warriors and the L.A. Motion. The New York team is captained by former NFL player Wade Davis, Jr., the most high profile player the league has. The L.A. team is led by Cyd Zeigler, founder of both the NGFFL and the website Outsports, as well as a former member of the Warriors. It’s a rivalry story that’s made for the movies, so i’’s fitting that it has become one.
Davis moved to New York City after his NFL career ended following a knee injury, with the goal of being able to come out and live openly as a gay man. He says the football league was the first group of gay men he met, thanks to a relationship he had built with Zeigler after sending him an email. “He told me to come to a practice and, for lack of a better word, ‘try out’ for the team,” says Davis. “I was a little bit insulted. I mean, I was a former NFL player and I knew it was a gay league, but that was all ego and me not really having enough experience to realize that gay men, women, trans folks can play sports and actually be really good at it.” But Davis says that when he got to the practice, “I walked out onto the field and saw all these gay men playing football and I fell in love with them immediately.” For him, the league gave him a safe haven to “interrogate my own ideas of femininity and masculinity and internalized homophobia,” but that didn’t happen for Davis right away.
He led the Warrior to three straight Gay Bowl championships after joining the league, but it’s mostly a blur for him. “When I joined in 2005 or 2006, I still had yet to wrestle with or interrogate what it meant to be a gay man who… loved sports,” he says. “I don’t even remember our championship run because I was so invested in winning and proving to myself that I was somehow different because I was ‘a good gay athlete.'”
Davis met Greenleaf, who directed and produced the film, playing together on the NYC team. Greenleaf, who is straight, stumbled upon a Warriors practice in the park one day and wanted to play with them. He didn’t know they were a gay team until they asked him to quarterback for them. He said yes because they were good, and he wanted to play football with these guys. “There was a moment of shock [when they asked] because it [a gay football league] wasn’t something I had awareness about. There’s this misperception that we have – that I had – when straight people think of gay men… there is an immediate feminizing of them and that feminizing is a very dangerous quality,” Greenleaf says. “There’s this misperception about gay men that they are soft, weak, feminine – and some may be, and that’s fine – but there’s a huge range, just like any group.”
But not only do these guys love to play ball, they’re good at it. Aside from Davis, several players seen in the film played at the collegiate level. One talks about giving up his dream of an NFL career because of his sexuality. The team is also shown playing a pick-up game against a team of straight players and beating them by a wide margin. After the game, one of the players is told that it’s a team of gay men and he’s respectful about it saying that he doesn’t care about their sexuality as long as they can play well. Unfortunately, that level of respect and acceptance is not as common in locker rooms across the country.
The suspense during the tournament scenes as we are left to wonder who will emerge victorious in the Gay Bowl is effective. But they are not the heart of the film. At its core, this is a movie about community – the gay community and the camaraderie of team sports, and how this league has managed to combine the two so that the people who are so often excluded from one due to their membership in the other can find acceptance and joy while playing the game they love.
But the gay community is not a monolith, even among those in the league, and much of the tension in the film arises as we explore the diverse personalities and the ways in which they butt heads during play and practice. For Greenleaf, he really wanted to create a film where gay men who like sports could see themselves reflected on screen, but also where straight athletes could see similarities between themselves and the gay athletes featured. He hopes that his film helps push for inclusion, particularly for youth sports. “Sports taught me at least 50 percent of what I learned growing up. The experience of bonding and working together and breaking down walls with others as teammates are important life lessons,” he says. “For there to be an environment where someone different is discriminated against or pushed away is unacceptable. To take away that experience because of someone’s sexuality is awful.” He is heartened by the fact that the New York Giants are supporting the film and Giants long snapper Zak DeOssie will be attending the premiere of the film. The New England Patriots have expressed their support for Gay Bowl XVII, which will be held in Boston this year.
The movie was filmed in 2010 and a lot has changed since then. Michael Sam became the first openly gay player drafted into the NFL; marriage equality became law in the United States; and the Black Lives Matter movement took root. For Davis, the latter changed his relationship with the league. “The league is primarily white and there was a big energy and excitement that most people in league had about marriage equality but when it came to other issues with people who hold other forms of identity, I felt the league lacked a level of solidarity,” he says. “I started to understand there were people who loved me because I was gay but didn’t love me because I was Black or who didn’t stand in solidarity with me around other issues. For my own self-care, I had to distance myself from people in league who weren’t there for me as a full human being.” He remains involved as a referee and a board member, and works for inclusion at all levels of sports as the Executive Director of the organization You Can Play.
“I hope people walk away from this film
understanding that we are all on a spectrum of everything – sexuality, gender
expression, self-acceptance and self-love,” Davis says. “I hope people
continue to wrestle with all these ideas as individuals and think critically
about how they want to move about world and create spaces for people to show up
as close as possible to their authentic self without apology or explanation.”