When Will Hackner and his friends organized their first game of Capture the Flag 13 years ago, they were looking for a reprieve from the monotony of Friday night drinkathons and Sunday Fundays. Now, as the Varsity Gay League has grown into a national behemoth that operates in 18 states, Hackner and his staff are looking to relieve LGBTQ people across the country from a far darker monotony: social isolation.
As the coronavirus pandemic rages into its sixth month, life is not close to normal for most Americans. The death toll is approaching 180,000 and more than 30 million people are unemployed. Schools remain shuttered; businesses are shut down; there are no gatherings of any kind. The extended isolation is creating a mental health crisis, with 26 percent of more than 5,400 randomly selected Americans in June indicating symptoms of anxiety disorder — up from 8 percent last year.
As we know, quarantining can be especially difficult for LGBTQ people. We are discouraged from seeing our chosen families and barred from meeting in our safe spaces — including the field or arena. Over the last two decades, LGBTQ recreational sports leagues have risen as popular alternatives to the chest-thumping nightclub scene, with tens of thousands of people participating. VGL is one of the larger national organizations, offering recreational leagues in cities ranging from Seattle to Providence. Based out of Los Angeles, it offers a variety of gym class favorites, including kickball and dodgeball. And it is insanely popular. Hackner estimates the league boasts an average of 5,500 players each season.
Every day, he says he’s inundated with messages from members inquiring about the status of their hometown league. It provides him with the motivation to keep moving forward, and attempt to navigate the unfathomable logistics of trying to safely operate a national sports organization in the midst of a pandemic.
“For all of us, me included, what this organization has meant for so many people is their social life, their friends life, their dating life, their exercise, their habitual weekly ritual of socialization,” Hackner told Outsports. “To deprive somebody of that who has built the backbone of their 9-5 Monday-Friday on this, it’s hard. It’s hard for so many people.”
Of course, survival plays a role, too. Hackner has been running VGL full-time since 2012, when he encountered enough tragedy in three weeks to fill up a lifetime. In less than one month, he came down with a major illness, got laid off from his job, and watched his dad go through chemotherapy and become half-paralyzed in the process. Oh, and his mother and stepfather lost all of their money in a fraudulent scheme. On a pre-planned trip to Puerto Vallarta that was supposed to lift Hackner’s spirits, one of his good friends broke his neck diving into the ocean, and needed spinal surgery.
With almost nothing left to lose, Hackner decided to dedicate himself full-time to VGL. It was his true passion, and he wanted to make himself happy. “‘I need to focus on myself,’” Hackner says he remembers thinking. “‘I have to start putting in me that I can survive. I survived this. What else can I survive?’”
At the time, Hackner, who previously worked at Warner Bros., had no business background. He says he picked up strategy from watching episodes of “Shark Tank” and meeting with successful business professionals, absorbing their insight. It was a hard road. Hackner was working odd jobs to keep himself afloat, and starving off repeated inquiries from his mother, questioning how he was going to live on $16,000 per year. But he kept going. In 2014, VGL expanded into other cities in California, and the following year, they went out of state. To keep things running, Hackner says he has one full-time employee and 40-50 people working under 1099 contracts. One year, he took a full-time desk job, in addition to his work with VGL, and used his entire salary to pay his staff.
While VGL has never been more structured, it’s also never faced a bigger challenge. This fall, Hackner says he expects leagues in at least seven cities to run, with the hope for several more. In recent months, Hackner has drafted a comprehensive Covid procedure handbook, utilizing protocols from the CDC and various local health counties. In kickball, for example, face coverings are required for all fielders and requested for base runners. The ball is sanitized after each time it comes into contact with players, and the use of dugouts is prohibited.
Dodgeball is running in select cities, too, though the game understandably looks very different. For starters, teams are capped at eight players, opposed to the usual 15 or 20. Balls are also removed from play and disinfected if they touch a player’s face.
All players, of course, are asked to sanitize, hand-wash, and stay the hell home if they even feel the slightest scratch in their throat.
Originally, Hackner says he was “absolutely terrified” at the prospect of playing dodgeball. But with mounting evidence that Covid-19 is more likely to be transmitted through aerosols, and not surfaces, Hackner says he began to feel more comfortable with the idea — provided transmission rates are low enough in a particular area. In many cities, officials aren’t even providing permits to recreational sports leagues.
“We have to be responsible to the community,” Hackner said. “We can’t say we’re a community organization and then say, ‘We’re playing sports, idiots!’ I can’t do that.”
Where it’s possible to play safely, Hackner says participation, though down from usual years, remains strong. People want to stay active, however they can.
“You can’t even go to a movie theatre and feel comfortable. The bar scene is shuttered,” Hackner said. “What VGL really stands for is something that’s sorely lacking right now. For us, it’s a great opportunity, but it’s incredibly important to me we’re doing it respectful of safety. Period.”
Positivity is also currently lacking in this world. At their cores, LGBTQ sports leagues represent community and camaraderie. During the loneliest moments of quarantine, Hackner says even something as small as a Facebook post can propel his spirits.
“In the society and world that we live in, there’s a lot of apathy, and constant churn and cancel and anger,” Hackner said. “It’s really nice to see something positive being shown on social media. It’s nice to see something positive coming out of people’s mouths. I would like to direct our attention towards something positive.”