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Openly LGBTQ athletes challenge student-athletes to build safer spaces at Pride On The Court panel

At this weekend’s Pride On The Court at Sarah Lawrence College, openly LGBTQ athletes told student-athletes it’s their responsibility to create safe locker room environments.

Karleigh Webb/Outsports

Anthony Bowens is known in pro-wrestling as “The Five-Tool Player”. A complete package that has propelled him toward stardom in the squared circle. A star that beamed even brighter after Bowens stepped forward and came out as gay last year.

However, he also admits to having the doubts and fears as a collegiate athlete and after moving into pro wrestling. “If I came out as a student-athlete in college would my teammates accept me?,” Bowens asked. “As I became a professional wrestler will fans accept me? Will other wrestlers accept me? Those were overwhelming thoughts I was constantly living with and trying to cope with.”

Professional wrestler Anthony Bowens called for student-athletes to take ownership in making their team inclusive
Karleigh Webb/Outsports

This past weekend, Bowens spoke out calling for high school and college student-athletes to make their team a safe space for every athlete, especially those who struggled as he once did.

“Are you going to be complicit?,” Bowens said. “Or are you going to be different and make a change? Can you find it within yourself to step up and be a leader?”

The comments were a part of 75-minute discussion opening of third annual Pride On The Court Weekend at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York. The panel featured Bowens, plus former college football player Conner Mertens, current SLC softball athlete Zoe Kim, and was moderated by Outsports co-founder Cyd Zeigler.

The discussion also came on the heels of a report written by Zeigler on former University of Miami running back TJ Callan, who told Outsports that he left the Miami football program because he felt unwelcome there as a gay man.

The news provided a backdrop for discussion, and brought back some harsh memories of being on the field and in the closet for the panelists.

Former Willamette University (OR) kicker Connor Mertens spoke on the importance of open, vocal support
Karleigh Webb/Outsports

“When your out on the field you are told to man up,” Mertens, who came out as bi while as a place-kicker at Willamette University, Oregon in 2014, said. “It wasn’t directed at means but what your teammates and friends are saying is this is weakness. People who are attracted to same-sex are weaker. When you are trying to suppress something all the time it does genuinely affect you.”

Kim, now an outfielder who hit .321 in her freshman year at Sarah Lawrence, excelled on the ballfield as a high-schooler in Austin, Texas but struggled with rumors off of it. “My locker room was that bad,” she remembers, “ They [teammates] wouldn’t want to change in front of me. They wouldn’t want to share a room when we went to tournaments. There was this very visible barrier that was between us. Being sort of a tomboy and being Asian, I already stuck out like a sore thumb and I didn’t want the same because of my sexuality so I wore the girly clothes and I learned how to do makeup to be the same as everybody else.”

Sarah Lawrence sophomore outfielder Zoe Kim lead by example a team captain in high school
Karleigh Webb/Outsports

As active player on the panel, Kim has also seen the positive side. The locker room became better and tighter because of who was leading it. “I was the captain of my high school softball team, so when I came out everybody was shocked at first. But, once everyone got used to it, three of the other girls on the team came out as well.”

Mertens also noted that visible, decisive leadership makes a difference. “You can’t be passive you have to say the words,” he said. “I was tight with my friends in high school, but I never thought they’d accept me. I was wrong, but I never would have known I was wrong if they didn’t make it vocal.”

Over 100 student-athletes and faculty attending the panel discussion, the including the participating teams in the Pride On The Courts basketball games the following day at SLC
Karleigh Webb/Outsports

For Bowens, the issue cycles back to taking the lead with or without the “team captain” title. He asked the crowd of student-athletes how many have wanted to call out homophobia or racism in the locker room, but wasn’t sure if they should. A few hands went up. He also asked whether they would vocally support someone who did say something, and even more hands went up.

“Sometimes, it only takes one person to stand up because it’s often like, ‘Is he going to do it? is she going to do it?,’” Bowens said. “It only takes that one person to take the opportunity to make things right for everyone else to go along with it.”

Watch this video of the conference by Karleigh Webb:

EDITOR’S NOTE: The original published report misspelled Anthony Bowens’ last name. Outsports sincerely regrets the error.