Henry Bethell had had enough of hearing gay slurs on the pitch.
The Sarah Lawrence College soccer player, in just his freshman year, had already seen a teammate called a gay slur during a match, and it had also happened to him personally earlier last season.
The queer athlete had for years found refuge in soccer. Now out in his personal and athletic lives these slurs, which he’d heard plenty in high school before he came out, made him feel the sport he loved was rejecting him for who he was.
Opposing coaches weren’t doing enough to curtail the abusive language, Bethell felt. The athletic directors were talking about the issue but appeared to be taking little action. He thought the Skyline Conference, while well-intentioned, wasn’t effectively educating its players and coaches on diversity.
All of that came to a head on Oct. 19, 2019.
Seventy-six minutes into his team’s Senior Night match late that season, up 3-1 over St. Joseph’s College Long Island, Bethell’s team was cruising to a big win at home when the tenor turned upside down.
That’s when the Sarah Lawrence goalkeeper made a big save that allegedly pissed off one of the opposing players. There was some posturing and maneuvering between the players. And then came the moment that changed the course for men’s soccer in the entire Skyline Conference.
“I’m sick of this little f***ot,” Bethell heard the opposing player say.
Bethell punched the player in the face, sending him to the ground. All hell broke loose.
When all was said and done, Bethell got a three-game suspension. Many players on the St. Joseph’s team, including the player accused of using the slur, were suspended a game. And people in and around the conference were left wondering one thing...
How could this all have been avoided?
Looking for a safe space in soccer
Growing up in Baltimore, Bethell was a star athlete. His Baltimore City College High School soccer team twice won the city championship. He was a team captain his final two seasons, and during his senior year that team became the first in school history to win Maryland sectional and regional titles.
The summer after his senior season, he played for the U-23 team of the Baltimore Kings, a professional soccer team.
He was also captain of his high school track and field team his junior season, earning AAU Maryland state runner-up in decathlon, a grueling 10-discipline event. An injury forced him onto the swim team for his senior season, where he was part of a relay team that won a city championship.
Now looking back a year later, Bethell said he was simply “way too afraid” to be out on his high school teams. He heard homophobic language from his soccer team, just as athletes hear in far too many high school environments.
“As a kid growing up, coming from Baltimore and playing all sorts of sports, this was stuff I heard routinely,” Bethell told Outsports while quarantined with his family in Maryland. “I heard the ‘F word’ a lot. There was talk about being a real man, being tough, not playing like girls. There’s such a focus on hyper-masculinity. When you instill that in young children it’s really unhealthy and unsafe for queer people as a whole.”
Bethell came out to a couple of close friends at the end of his senior year, and then he was off to college.
One of the reasons Bethell chose Sarah Lawrence was the school’s queer-friendly reputation. He wanted to continue playing soccer, but he wanted to do it in a place where he knew he would be accepted for him and not have to stay in the closet anymore.
Amongst his teammates at Sarah Lawrence, he has found widespread acceptance.
“My teammates have been good,” Bethell said. “We talk about things as a team, and I’m comfortable sharing stuff with them. It’s been a good, supportive environment so far.”
Bethell has also had his head coach on his side. It was the first season at the helm for Evan Brandsdorfer, who got to Sarah Lawrence after Bethell had committed to playing for the Gryphons.
“I’ve approached it like I’d approach any other guy with anything else that makes him different,” Brandsdorfer said. “Henry worked his butt off all preseason. For me, it didn’t make any difference whatsoever.”
Brandsdorfer took over a program that has never had a winning season, and in his first season they posted the team’s best statistical record — 6-10-1 — since at least 2011, if not ever.
Bethell is a key part of Brandsdorfer’s plans for the future. As a freshman, Bethell started 14 games at right back for the Gryphons. And his trajectory is going up.
“I’m excited to see where he’s going to be,” Brandsdorfer said. “He’s in the gym every day. With his work rate, and the way he focuses on getting better, I’m excited to see what he looks like sophomore year and beyond.”
Yet Brandsdorfer said as a coach he’s put an emphasis on building a team, not building statistics.
“My goal hasn’t been wins or playoffs,” Brandsdorfer said, “but to establish a team culture where the guys know they have each other’s backs.”
It would be that game on the night of Oct. 19, a week after National Coming Out Day, that the team-building efforts Brandsdorfer had instilled would get their biggest test.
Failing to fix a growing problem
What happened the night of the punch didn’t happen in a vacuum. It never does.
While Bethell has experienced widespread support from his team and coaches, it’s been on the pitch — once the matches start and opponents talk and shove — that the queer-friendly environment Bethell enjoys with his team fades, in part, to the sideline.
The first incident came earlier in the season when an opponent allegedly called another member of the Sarah Lawrence soccer team a “f***ot.” The SLC player pushed the person who called him the slur, earning Bethell’s teammate a yellow card. When Brandsdorfer learned why the push happened, he talked to a game administrator.
The complaint went up the ranks, with Sarah Lawrence athletic director Kristin Maile reporting it to the conference, who addressed the incident with the other school.
Yet even then, Maile was concerned about what exactly would be done to educate other teams in the conference about the use of the language.
“You don’t just choose words like that randomly,” Maile said. “That kind of language is probably also happening at practice.”
The second incident that season was a gay slur directed specifically at Bethell. Word of being out to his team, it seems, had traveled fast.
While Bethell complained to the officials, they could not take any punitive action as they had not heard the slur themselves. They addressed the issue with the coaches. According to multiple sources, the offending player ultimately admitted to using the slur and was suspended for a game.
Yet for Bethell, the conference wasn’t doing enough. Administrators had come down with suspensions, but there was little or no education of the players and coaches. To Bethell it was whack-a-mole, addressing every instance as it came instead of getting ahead of the bigger issues.
“All along the conference office has been receptive, speaking to the coaches, giving ultimatums for the coaches, talking with the assignor of officials,” Maile said. “But it wasn’t changing.”
For Bethell, being queer today is part of his essential being, whether it’s with his friends, his family or in soccer.
“I’m proud of who I am, and I wouldn’t change it,” Bethell said. “It’s not wrong. And I’m proud to play soccer and have an opportunity to play in college. Sports has the opportunity to be a community for all different kinds of people, no matter who you are.”
So the third time Bethell had to endure hearing gay slurs on the pitch directed at him or his team, he decided — in that fraction of a second — that he had had enough of it.
Bethell said his goalkeeper came out of the goal for a long save, taking the ball away from the opposing player’s feet. The opposing player seemed to feel it was a foul and, according to Bethell, “he was walking aggressively toward our keeper.” Bethell got between the two of them to protect his teammate, and that’s when the player called Bethell a “f***ot.”
“It just happened,” Bethell said. “I turned around and punched him. After that I kind of blacked out, like a flight-or-fight response. I remember watching him go down and landing on top of him. My keeper jumped on my back because the other team’s bench was coming.”
A melee ensued, with Bethell’s hair being pulled, his body scratched. While many players from the SJC bench came onto the field to engage in fighting, the SLC players on the sideline stayed there. Brandsdorf knew a suspension would ensue.
At the end of the scuffle, Bethell was ejected from the game, as well as a player from SJC, allegedly for retaliating. The player accused of using the slur was not ejected from the game, as the officials didn’t hear the slur. That is standard protocol for officiating; If an official does not see and hear an action, they cannot take punitive action. Any action beyond that is up to the conference.
Outsports has viewed game film of the incident. There isn’t audio that catches the confrontation, and it does not confirm what was said. It does show the opposing player waving his arm and saying something that triggers a physical reaction from Bethell, who punches the player in the head. Another Sarah Lawrence player also approaches the opponent. Bethell then falls on top of the opposing player as St. Joseph’s players rush from the sideline toward Bethell.
Multiple messages sent to the athletics department at St. Joseph’s College seeking comment went unreturned.
“You can see on the tape something was said, and then all hell breaks loose,” Skyline Conference commissioner Linda Bruno said of the moment the slur was allegedly uttered. “We didn’t have any reason to believe this didn’t happen.”
In the ensuing days, the players from SJC who left the bench area were all handed one-game suspensions, in addition to the player accused of directing the slur at Bethell.
Bethell was given a three-game suspension. Two games are prescribed by the NCAA rules book for fighting. The Skyline Conference mandates an additional one-game suspension for a straight red card (not incurred by two lesser yellow cards). The SJC player ejected for the altercation also did not play in his final three games of the season.
Bethell’s suspension lingers. As his team had only two games left in the 2019 season, he will be forced to miss the first game of his next season, all because he had had enough of opponents calling him and his teammates a “f***ot.”
While it’s clear administrators at the Skyline Conference and Sarah Lawrence College want sports to be free of homophobia, despite multiple complaints from the Sarah Lawrence men’s soccer team, use of homophobic slurs seemed to persist in the conference.
For Bethell, nobody’s done enough.
“We should all be stepping onto a level playing field,” Bethell said. “That’s one of the most beautiful things about sports at their best, that you can be simply judged by how good you are.
“But we have a ways to go.”
Taking concrete steps to address the problem
It’s not as though this one sport in this one conference has a unique problem. The history of homophobia and gay slurs in sports, and in particular men’s sports, is no secret.
Kobe Bryant famously called an NBA referee a gay slur in 2011, quickly learning that that kind of language was not acceptable. Athletes of various sports at varied levels have talked to Outsports about gay slurs they have had to endure. Just the previous season another out soccer player endured gay slurs during an NCAA Division III match.
Still, people within the Skyline Conference expressed surprise that something like this could happen.
“We’re one of the most diverse conferences in Division III,” said Bruno, citing member schools that are of military background, as well as schools from the Catholic and Jewish faiths. “And that’s why it’s startling to me that this happened.”
Since the punch heard ‘round the conference, Bruno and others have worked hard to build understanding amongst athletes and coaches. She has addressed the issue not just with the athletic departments, but also the presidents of the member schools.
“Our presidents came out pretty hard on this,” Bruno said. “And I’m happy that we’re taking action and trying to create an environment that’s accepting of each other.
“There’s no place for that in college sports. None.”
Another step Bruno has taken has been to address the conference’s sportsmanship statement, which had not previously included mention of sexual orientation.
The conference is also instructing officials about exactly how to address a situation if reports of gay slurs arise again in a match. That includes stopping the match, speaking to both head coaches and putting everyone on notice that the behavior is not to continue. The coach of the offending player may also be asked to remove the player momentarily and help him understand what’s going on.
“We’ve done that before in a couple other instances, not necessarily with gay slurs, but with other things,” Bruno said. “And it works. Can a kid say it again? Yeah. But I think if you know you’re going to get called out on this, the kid is likely to stop.”
Bruno also knows that education can help avoid the problem all together.
To that end, the Skyline Conference created an event that was supposed to take place this weekend at Sarah Lawrence College. It involved all of the coaches across the conference, and it was scheduled to feature conversations with Bethell and gay former NBA player Jason Collins, among others.
The event has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and Collins’ contraction of COVID-19.
“Athletics need to be a safe space,” Bruno said. “And I don’t just throw the word ‘safe’ around lightly. We don’t all agree on politics, but what we do need to do is come together and say we’re accepting of other people’s opinions and lifestyles.”
In addition, Sarah Lawrence College hosted a seminar in February educating athletes and coaches on campus and at area high schools about anti-LGBTQ harassment in sports.
”Sarah Lawrence did a great job supporting Henry and listening to him and hearing about what he was experiencing,” Brandsorfer said, praising his athletic director. “[Athletic director] Kristin supported him and then did a great job of making this a very teachable moment at the end to help everyone learn from it.”
While it’s still unclear how the conference will ensure the safety of Bethell and other LGBTQ athletes and coaches going forward, the action Bethell took last October is ensuring everyone is doing the best they can.
A future of uncertainty on the pitch
As Bethell approaches his next season, he’s uneasy. He knows after the punching incident that he could be a target for more slurs.
“I’m worried about something happening next season,” he said. “But I have my coach and my athletic director behind me, and my teammates are behind me. And if it’s going to happen again, it’s going to happen.”
The coronavirus pandemic has put a damper on educational outreach to coaches and athletes, and Bethell is afraid the conference will totally drop the ball before next season.
“I’m really pushing for the conference to take slurs more seriously and create stronger suspensions to send the message to athletes in the conference that slurs on the field are not acceptable.”
The consequences of not doing so could be severe. If Bethell feels again driven to punch a player for calling him a gay slur, it could be a disaster for the conference and even the NCAA.
No one wants that to happen. Bethell mentioned he’s considering switching numbers during the season, so it’s harder for opposing teams to target him for harassment.
Maile mentioned another option, maybe even more drastic, but one she would support if Bethell is again called a slur.
“Does our team walk off the field at that point?” Maile asked. “My coach can certainly do that if he feels it isn’t being addressed.”
Ultimately, all Bethell wants to do is continue to pursue his passion for soccer in an environment where he won’t be called a ‘faggot,’ or some other slur. For years he hid in the closet, afraid of how people in soccer would receive him. He wants that fear to end.
“I want to be able to play. I want to be able to play without having to worry about being called a slur. I want to play without worrying about the consequences of my sexuality. I want to play without being seen as the gay soccer player, or that faggot, in another player’s mind.
“Soccer’s always been a place where I can go for those 90 minutes, and I can forget about all my problems. I can forget about anything that’s bothering me.
“I want that space to be safe for me again.”
Henry Bethell is a freshman at Sarah Lawrence College, currently quarantining with his family in Baltimore. You can follow Henry on Twitter, or on Instagram @henrygannett.
If you’re an LGBTQ athlete who’s currently or formerly in high school, college or pro sports, head to GO! Athletes to meet other LGBTQ athletes like you.