One of the most impactful days in my life here at Outsports was the 2012 NFLPA Rookie Premier Event. It was so impactful because of how the players I spoke with opened my eyes to the reality of intelligence and acceptance in the sport of football.
"People look at us and they think we’re just big jocks," Trent Richardson, then a Cleveland Browns top draft pick, told me. "They don’t look at us as far as us being smart. We’re not just here because we play football and have talent. We had to work to get this far.”
Nick Foles, a Philadelphia Eagles draftee, echoed Richardson’s sentiment.
"Everybody says football is such a man’s sport, and it’s so tough," Foles said. "But we have hearts too. We’re normal people, and we just want to treat people decently."
The ideas of acceptance in all levels of football were echoed across my interviews that day. Antonio Pierce. Jevon Kearse. Coby Fleener. Ahman Green.
Since that day, contributing to the perspectives I got from people like Michael Irvin, Corey Johnson and Brian Sims, I have viewed football differently. I’ve viewed it as a place of acceptance, not rejection.
So when I saw the story of Kennedy Cooley, a transgender student at Halifax West High School in Nova Scotia, I wasn’t surprised. According to CTV, Cooley transferred to his current school after finding a lack of acceptance at his former school.
He’s found nothing but acceptance on the Halifax West football team.
Despite hearing about how tight-knit the players on his team were before he joined, and worrying about breaking into that elite club that is high school football, Cooley said he has been totally embraced.
“Everybody was so accepting,” Cooley told CTV. “It was amazing.”
The story has rightly made the rounds of social media over the last week because of the positive angle. It’s left me wondering how many people have been surprised by the acceptance of a trans athlete on a football team, and for how many people this is the expected response.
So many people — media members, activists, even athletes themselves — fill the conversation about LGBT people in sports with trepidation. We hear all the time how much “work” there is left to do in sports, how X percentage of fans would have trouble with a gay athlete or how Y percentage of athletes have heard a homophobic slur.
Yet what gets highlighted far too rarely is how desperately few LGBT athletes are rejected by their teams. While homophobic and transphobic slurs certainly lead to an environment of fear, that environment so rarely reflects the ability of the very athletes uttering the slurs to accept a teammate who comes out. According to countless LGBT athletes in high school, college and the pros, in addition to their straight teammates, athletes including football players are ready, willing and very able to accept people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
I’m so glad Kennedy Cooley found what we’ve known for years, and that his Halifax West football team showed what is central to the true heart of football.