In 2009 my teacher announced to our eighth-grade class that for our final project we’d be required to create a poster about what our dream job was. I knew almost instantly that being a general manager of a professional baseball team was my aspirational job of choice.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with sports. Growing up, I was a mediocre athlete who loved to play, and I maintained a strong passion for the organizational prowl that took place behind the scenes of professional sports franchises. My favorite day of year growing up was July 31, because it was the MLB trade deadline.
It was a time where I could analyze all of the trades, everything from a middle reliever being swapped over for cash considerations to a marquee player like Hunter Pence who helped his new team win a World Series. I studied the game so much that my grandfather would parade me around at neighborhood clambakes and tell his friends to ask his grandson any baseball related question, like what was Daisuke Matsuzaka’s ERA in 2007 (4.40), and I’d be able to recite it back to them with relative ease.
I never felt truly recognized as an athlete, as a sports fan and certainly not as an aspiring sports professional. I always felt a heightened sense to prove myself, I still do to an extent today. Because I am gay.
I knew I was different and I grew up surrounded by a culture and society that made it seem that the gay community had no place in sports. As a Little Leaguer I remember hearing gay slurs used by my peers and they stung. I felt ostracized and uncomfortable.
As much as I knew that my passion and knowledge of the game was unrivaled I never felt equal to my peers. I had a preconceived idea of what it meant to be gay and I knew that sports were not something gay people “liked” or participated in. I grew up so badly wanting a career in sports and for a while denied my sexuality because I couldn’t possibly wrap my head around being both a sports aficionado and a gay man.
When I submitted my eighth-grade project, I said I wanted to become a teacher — not a sports executive. I didn’t do my project on an MLB general manager. I felt a career in sports was unrealistic and I did not think it would be a place that I could ever work. Sports was not an industry that welcomed the LGBT community.
My hesitation was not unfounded. Growing up I never had athletes like Gus Kenworthy or Robbie Rogers to serve as public role models. I had a natural tendency to lead but the industry lacked representation of those like me. I enjoyed inspiring others and stirring movements of social change. If I could teach, then maybe I could inspire the next generation to be more socially aware than the generation I was growing up in.
The absence of out athletes was integral in my struggles as a young sports fan and the absence of notable gay professionals in the industry hurt my ability to visualize myself as both a gay man and sports professional. When I decided to pursue a degree and a career in sports business and every time I took a job in the sports industry I did so fully with the intention of remaining in the closet. I’d sacrifice my happiness and acceptance for a career in an industry I loved.
For too long, regressive norms in the sports industry have held back students of color, females, and members of the LGBT community from pursuing a career. The industry is still faced with racism, sexism, and homophobia.
I graduated from UMass Amherst with my undergraduate degree in Sport Management before enrolling in Florida State’s master’s program for the same field of study, on a full ride no less. While there, I decided I would step up and create a forum for minority students to connect and learn from industry leaders and for my peers who were in the non-marginalized groups to learn about the struggles their friends faced.
In sports today, we have only one openly gay athletic administrator serving in the highest role — general manager or team president — in any of the five major professional sports (MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL, and NHL): Golden State Warriors President and COO Rick Welts.
We sorely lack administrative opportunities for women. In NCAA Division I programs, a measly 12% of athletic directors are female, and it is not due to a lack of qualified applicants. For persons of color in sports, they are often type-cast into certain roles, mainly with athlete management or recruitment. In the NCAA, 87.5% of athletic directors are white.
This year, my school, Florida State, became the only institution with a black AD, black head basketball coach, and black head football coach, after the hiring of Willie Taggert in December 2017. While our athletic department has shown a commitment to diversity, Florida State still resides in the South and is located in the state’s panhandle. While the City of Tallahassee is relatively progressive, it is still surrounded by strong conservative pockets, leaving much work to be done.
Given the lack of awareness about the importance of conversations related to diversity and inclusion at FSU, I started an organization whose mission is to work to dismantle the regressive norms including, but not limited to, homophobia racism, and sexism in sports, that have festered for too long in our industry.
The Foundation for Diversity and Inclusion in Sport (FDIS) is a group of students who see both the ethical and fiscal responsibility a diverse organization holds, and we are impassioned to enact change. It is a place where all students can feel welcome, where all students can confidently aspire to be a general manager of a professional sports team, an athletic director, a commissioner, etc., no matter their gender, race, or sexual orientation.
I’ve grown to love myself and to fully accept my sexuality. It’s sad that it took me so long to get to this point and I hope that the next generation of aspiring sports professionals will have role models and leaders who are succeeding in the industry to look up to, like Welts.
Wherever I decide to work after I’ve completed my master’s program in August they’ll have to be willing to accept me as who I am, and I hope they will witness and share the same pride in my passion and work ethic for a career in this industry that I showed my grandfather and his friends as a child. I’m not afraid of who I am, and I won’t let social norms suffocate me from living my truest life.
Sports is for all, on the field and in the boardroom. If you’re qualified you should get the opportunity and you should be unapologetic about your identity. Life is too short to be anything but happy. Stand for what’s right now, because if not now, when, if not you, who?
For the Ben in eighth grade who felt alone and ostracized, I’m sorry society hurt you. I’m sorry society led you to believe you were anything less than normal. I’m sorry that society made you feel like you were less of an athlete or less of a sports fan because of something you have no control over.
You can be whatever you want to be. Dream big. One day, you’ll surprise yourself and you’ll be accepted by all your friends, family and peers in the industry.
Ben, one day you’ll be the role model you never had, a gay man working and succeeding in the sports industry. The future is bright.
Benjamin Pereira is a 2017 graduate of the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management at UMass Amherst, and a current Master’s Candidate in Sport Management at Florida State University, expected to graduate in August 2018. He is actively seeking his first full-time role in sports and hopes to find an organization where he is able to bring his full self. You can connect with Ben via email (email@example.com), Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.
If interested in starting up an FDIS on your campus or hearing more info, please reach out to FDIS.FSU@gmail.com and follow them on Twitter (FDIS_FSU).
Story editor: Jim Buzinski