Ten years of gridiron gays
Ten years ago, Robert Saurer was fresh out of college and tossing a football around at home, wishing that he had a safe, comfortable environment where he could play football as an out gay man. On a whim, he placed an ad in Bay Windows looking to start a league for gay and gay-friendly football fans. Now, Greater Boston's Friends, Lesbians and Gays (FLAG) Flag Football League consists of 180 players who make up fourteen teams and is one of the most active gay sports leagues in the state.
"I wanted to get back into some kind of organized sport, but I wanted to do it in an environment that wasn't so, I don't want to say threatening, but uncomfortable at times if you're a gay athlete. ... I wanted to specifically play with other gay athletes," said Saurer of his idea to start the league.
Originally Saurer just wanted to find a group of 15 guys to get together to play pick-up flag football on a semi regular basis, but he got more than he bargained for.
"We started with two teams that year, we played through most of the fall, and, lo and behold, it took off," he said of the initial startup of the league. "The social aspects were great. We played football for three hours on a Saturday and then spillover, have a couple of beers or whatever as a group and it became somewhat popular amongst that group, and then word of mouth just kind of built on it."
According to Saurer, the league morphed from an informal group of players to a more structured league after the third season. Eventually, it grew to include so many players that they began to need more organization, including referees, uniforms, and a budget.
"As Tom Peters once said, once you have more than four people part of any organization you have a hopeless bureaucracy," laughed Saurer. "As our team became a four-team league, all of a sudden you had a bureaucracy and you needed budgets, you need waivers, you needed the legal stuff."
Today, the league begins play at the start of September and runs until the third week of November. They end their season with the "Super Fabulous Bowl" and a celebratory dinner. According to Sherr, in honor of this year's tenth anniversary, the dinner will be little bit more fabulous, with a new location and a larger budget. In addition, the league is planning a huge "family and friends" event at the end of October, which alums of the program are encouraged to attend.
Saurer ran the league for six years, until he handed commissionership to Gary Sherr, who remains in charge of the league today. He is supported by eight board members, who play an active role in making sure everything happens when it should.
"Oh boy," laughed Sherr when asked about what is involved with keeping the league running. "I guess from the outside looking in, it hopefully doesn't look like much, but there is actually quite a bit to do."
Those who run the league have a relatively simple philosophy in juggling all the logistical details, and that is to keep the trains running on time.
"Just generally speaking, the one thing that I think is one point of success in our league is that the trains run on time," explained Saurer.
"Meaning every Saturday, there's a game. Every Saturday, there are refs. Every Saturday, people show up. Every week, you get the email communications about what's happening."
"Leave it to a bunch of gay guys to let the train run," Saurer said, laughing.
Saurer said it's that commitment to keeping everything running smoothly that has attracted both gay and straight players to the league. He is not shy when it comes to admitting that he believes he began one of the best leagues in the state.
"I will say I think it is the best-run football league, straight or gay, in Massachusetts by far, and I can say that because we actually have a lot of straight players who joined our team. ... They were really annoyed by [other leagues] because they would show up on a Saturday and the other team wouldn't show up, the refs wouldn't show up, it was a fifty-fifty crap shoot type of thing."
While Saurer and Sherr both take pride in the consistency and commitment that FLAG Flag Football's organizers have brought to the league, they said there are many other factors that have helped make the league a success.
"The goal is really that there's a balance between competitiveness and recreation, recreation and keeping it fun. I think one of the reasons this league is so successful is that it's really struck a very good balance between both," explained Sherr.
In addition, Sherr believes that the creation of new teams every season adds to that uniqueness, and allows all the players involved to get to know different people each season. In addition, all the games are played around the same time on Saturday, so everyone can head to Fritz for a few beers together after the games. More than anything, it's the focus on friendship and not just on winning.
"The general feedback is, 'I play because I have a really good time and the social camaraderie that I have with the other players is fantastic,'" said Saurer. "In reality, of 160 plus players, my guess is that twenty to thirty are there because they really, really, really, really need to catch a football every Saturday. The vast majority are there partly because they're sports-oriented. They like sports, but in combination with the social aspects it makes for a really, really fun day, and that's really the key to the success of the league."
In addition to playing great football, Sherr points out that the league has important community relations with the Waltham House, a group home for LGBT youth run by the Home for Little Wanderers, and league members volunteer and interact with the kids at the house once a month.
"That's something that we're very proud of, and I think it's important to keep roots to the community and really just be role models, especially for the kids at the Waltham House," said Sherr.
More than anything, Saurer believes that the league stands for something bigger than just strong friendships and gay men playing football in Boston.
"The thing that really drags people out is they have a good time on Saturday morning. But the reality is, it's kind of a statement that gay guys are not only your police officers, they're your doctors and your teachers and whatever, but they're also your football players," he explains.
"There has not yet been an active professional NFL player who's ever come out. ... I think what the league does, positionally in people's minds, like my brother for instance, like my father, who kind of thought, gay football, what the hell ... I think it changes the construct a bit for the people who know about it and realize that at some point this is going to have to happen where a gay player feels comfortable enough in the NFL or whatever to be able to come out," said Saurer. "I think it's the next big area where being gay is not going to be an issue, but it hasn't happened yet."