It was the casual locker room language that finally drove Liam Ball to come out to his team.
The two-year captain of the Meadowdale High School wrestling team had heard enough of the homophobia tossed around the locker room. While he had come out to some friends and family, he had never had “the talk” with anyone on the wrestling team.
Certainly word had spread through the high school that one of the school’s best athletes was gay. Ball had placed seventh last year in the 182-pound Class 3A state meet. He would be ranked No. 1 this season going into the state tournament, having not lost a single match in the state of Washington.
People were talking about Liam Ball. They were whispering about him being gay.
Yet the “locker room talk” from his own team persisted.
“I’d hear these kids in the locker room talking about stuff,” Ball told Outsports, “and I figured it was time to come out to them and talk to them about it.”
When he drove to the office of his coach, Brian Boardman, months ago to talk to him about setting things straight (no pun intended) with the team, Boardman couldn’t have been more fantastic.
"He was nothing but supportive,” Ball said. “He's an amazing person. He thought it was a great idea to continue to be captain, set an example and be a role model."
So he did. Ball called the 30 or so wrestlers together and talked with them about being gay, respecting one another, and cutting out the language in the locker room that did little more than divide them.
“It was the scariest group to come out to because I spent so much time with them. They were the bros, and I didn't know how they'd take it."
They took it great.
Ball said the use of slurs and other insensitive “gay talk” was virtually eliminated overnight after his conversation with the team. A couple underclassmen would slip up from time to time, but they were quickly corrected by a member of the team.
Ball doesn’t think most of the kids using the slurs “even understand the context behind it,” but now that they are learning about it he’s gratified to see them change their behavior so quickly.
"A lot of kids had my back after I had the conversation with them, which was nice. I grew with my team, and we had a much better connection after it happened.”
However, he continued to hear slurs and other anti-gay language from opposing wrestlers at meets.
"A kid in one locker room said something,” Ball remembered. "But I just kind of ignored it and proved it on the mat. That's kind of what you've got to do. I don't know if I'd feel safe calling them out in the locker room, I just have to prove it on the mat.
“Walk the walk."
A Seattle Times article about him appeared shortly before a regional meet in February. Again, he heard rumblings. Again, he dominated the field.
In fact, he dominated every wrestler he faced this season in the state of Washington until the Class 3A state final. His overall season record was 38-3, losing twice at a tournament in Idaho ... and once in Washington.
It’s excruciating for Ball to think about, up 3-0 with 40 seconds left in the state final match. A couple of little mistakes and, just like that, he lost.
"I made the wrong move and he scored off of me. It's pretty nerve-wracking coming up in the state final."
Ball won’t be wrestling in college. He’s hanging up the singlet to pursue school and other extracurricular activities.
In addition to being a standout athlete and team captain at his high school, he’s also the vice-president of the student body, president of the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance, and volunteers for the local labor union during elections. He canvased neighborhoods last year on behalf of the union for Democratic politicians and ballot initiatives.
"I feel like I've made a positive impact at my high school. Now it's time to go make a positive impact on the world."
You can find Liam Ball on Facebook, on Instagram @liamcball, or on Twitter @LiamCullenBall.