When an opponent of the Colby-Sawyer College men’s soccer team called their gay teammate an anti-gay slur just before halftime of their match last Wednesday, the team responded in a big way.
Not only was there an emotional halftime speech by the Colby-Sawyer head coach about rallying around their gay teammate, but the team left no doubt with a resounding victory that gave them their first win of the season and sent a message of love and support.
It all started right before halftime when Colby-Sawyer faced the Rivier Univ. men’s soccer team in a Division III clash last Wednesday night. The two schools are in New Hampshire and part of the Great Northeast Athletic Conference.
Couper Gunn, a Colby-Sawyer team captain, was wearing a rainbow-colored captains armband in support of his community.
Gunn came out as gay in 2019 and shared his story on Outsports last January, so it was no secret what that rainbow armband meant.
“Get that faggot armband off of you,” Gunn remembered an opposing player saying during the match.
Gunn chose to not be silent. Working over the last year with the Sports Equality Foundation, he has become particularly present with the importance of modeling inclusive behavior and making sure that every LGBTQ person feels they have a place in sports.
Earlier this year, Gunn had taken the extraordinary step of calling a team meeting to talk about language. While he had experienced outward support from his teammates, he also felt that some lingering language around the team — Gunn called it “subversive homophobia” — could still be better.
“I talked with the team about some of the awful things they’d said, which was very hard to do at the time,” Gunn said. “I wanted to make them aware of the issues and things they may have not thought about.”
While it may have been a tough conversation for Gunn to broach, he had the respect of other leaders on the team.
“He talked about the ignorance on the team, and how sometimes we don’t know we’re being homophobic and we need to be educated,” said Lucas Boetsch, one of Gunn’s co-captains on the team. ”He talked to us about what it’s like to be an openly gay man today and educating us about the LGBTQ community. And that’s something I’m really proud of, his work in support of the community.”
The team took Gunn’s conversation to heart, and Gunn said the language he heard around the team shifted very quickly.
“Since then, the change in their behavior has been incredible,” Gunn said. “Not only are they outwardly supportive, but their language now, even when they’re not thinking about it, is showing that.”
So when the team heard about a Rivier player calling Gunn a gay slur during their match last Wednesday, they were ready for a fight. Boetsch said he and other players did hear the slur from the sideline.
“The first real emotion was just fury at the audacity of someone using a homophobic slur like that,” Boetsch said. “It was outrageous to us.”
But they didn’t fight with their fists. Gunn had enough self control to keep his response to words with the player, then talk with the referee and his coach. He was a leader on the team, and he knew he needed to act like one.
“I was very proud of Couper in the way he responded,” Boetsch said. “You could tell he was visibly upset. He had a couple words with the opponent, and then he spoke to the referee afterward. And then the game went on. But the part I’m most proud of is that he didn’t retaliate.
“He had the opportunity to lay the kid out, but he didn’t. He let the game talk.”
At halftime, it was the Colby-Sawyer head coach, Bob Reasso, who did a lot of the talking in the locker room. By now, Gunn’s emotions had gotten the best of him. He sat on a bench with his team, his face in his hands, tears flowing.
“I was upset I’d been called that, but I was more upset because I was thinking about all the queer kids who that kid comes into contact with every day,” Gunn said. “He perpetuates that, even if he didn’t mean it, using the F word. And I was just so sad that someone like that exists, who would use that language. I was present with how unsafe and how unwelcome that made me feel for a few minutes.”
After the match, the player, according to Gunn, confirmed he knew that Gunn was gay.
In that locker room at halftime, Gunn was safe with his soccer family. Coach Reasso walked over to Gunn and addressed his player directly, not shying away from what had happened.
“Look at me,” Gunn remembered his coach saying to him. “You’re a very brave man. You’re a strong man.”
Gunn doesn’t remember the rest of Reasso’s halftime talk, but he said it was something about the other team coming after one of their brothers, and they needed to show Rivier what that meant to all of them.
The team walked back out onto the pitch for the second half tied with Rivier, 0-0.
“I was completely off my game to start the second half,” Gunn said. His team, however, would have his back. “When my teammates came in, immediately to start the second half, they brought the energy and made it easier for me to get my head back into the game.”
Over the next 45 minutes they took it to the Rivier team, scoring five goals and blanking their opponents, earning their first win of the season, 5-0. Gunn played all 90 minutes of the match.
Afterward, Gunn headed to TikTok to express his pride in his team for how they responded to the anti-gay language. That TikTok video has been viewed over 40,000 times.
“We went on to beat them, 5-0, and embarrass them at their fields under their lights in front of their home fans,” Gunn said in the video.
Rivier athletic director Joanne Merrill sent Outsports this statement regarding the incident:
“Rivier takes any negative speech or actions seriously and is in all ways against them,” Merrill said. “We have taken this incident very seriously and have handled it in a way we view as appropriate. We regret that it happened and it in no way reflects what we are about and what we try to model.”
The Great Northeast Athletic Conference told Outsports in a statement that the conference hopes a combination of consequences and education helps address the issue.
“The GNAC takes matters such as this very seriously and the conference has issued a four-game suspension to the student-athlete,” said league spokesperson Michael Ghika. “It is the league office’s understanding that the offending individual, his teammates, and coaching staff have made sincere efforts to offer apology to the Colby-Sawyer men’s soccer program.
“We hope this unfortunate incident sparks important conversation and provides further education on fully supporting the LGBTQ+ community. The GNAC will devote resources to inclusive programming on the matter for its student-athlete population.”
For his part, Gunn said he has offered to go to Rivier — just an hour’s drive from Colby-Sawyer — to talk with athletes there about language and better respecting the needs of the LGBTQ community. He had success doing that very thing with his own team, and he hopes to have a similar impact at his rival school.
Gunn said Rivier has not responded to his offer.
In the meantime, he and his team are looking ahead to the rest of the season. He knows they have his back no matter what happens, though he said there is one thing they could have done a little bit better in supporting him that fateful night last Wednesday:
“They could have made the score 6-0.”
You can follow Couper Gunn on Instagram and on TikTok. You can also reach him via email.
If you’re an LGBTQ athlete in high school or college sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators, Olympic or pro athletes, and other non-athletes in sports.
Also check out The GameDay Tea’s conversation with Gunn from earlier this summer: