For better or worse, trash talking is ever-present at all levels of sports. Some professional athletes are renowned for using their gift of gab during play to fluster their opponents. But when talk crossed the line into homophobic slurs during a college soccer game in Yonkers last year, OutSports reveals one player had finally had enough.
“It just happened,” Henry Bethell told Cyd Zeigler of OutSports. “I turned around and punched him. After that I kind of blacked out, like a flight-or-fight response."
Bethell plays for Sarah Lawrence College, a small liberal arts college 30 minutes north of New York City. Barbara Walters, Rahm Emanuel, and J.J. Abrams are all alumni. The school is part of the Skyline Conference. Bethell had chosen the school in part because of its reputation as a welcoming and safe space for LGBTQ+ students. He came out to a few friends at home before he left for college, and he’s been living openly while at Sarah Lawrence. He’s found both the school and his teammates to be supportive.
“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.”
Players on opposing teams, though, have not been as supportive.
On October 19 of last year. Bethell and his Sarah Lawrence teammates were winning 3-1 at home over St. Joseph’s College of Long Island. An opposing player became combative after a good save by the Sarah Lawrence goalkeeper. Bethell tried to play peacemaker by stepping between the two, and that’s when it happened.
“I’m sick of this little faggot,” Bethell heard the other player say. And so, he responded.
Bethell landed a solid punch, then jumped on top of the player when he fell to the ground. A brawl ensued, although the only bench that cleared was from St. John’s College. The player who hurled the instigating slur received a one-game suspension, as did his teammates who left the bench. Bethell received a three-game suspension.
After speaking with Bethell and hearing his side of the story, first-year coach Evan Brandsdorfer immediately stood up for his player. It’s part of the culture he’s been instilling in his team this season.
“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.”
Athletic Director Kristin Maile also has Bennett’s back. She reported the incident to the conference, who in turn dealt with St. John’s College. And she directly questions the team culture that would foster the casual use of that type of hateful and ignorant language.
“You don’t just choose words like that randomly,” Maile said. “That kind of language is probably also happening at practice.”
Bethell is now quarantined with his family in Baltimore and as a result, he’s had plenty of time to reflect on the role sports plays in his life, the incident, and, of course, himself.
“I’m proud of who I am, and I wouldn’t change it,” Bethell told OutSports. “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.”
He’s looking forward to returning to Sarah Lawrence and rejoining his teammates on the field. He’s also hoping the conference takes the necessary steps to ensure a safe athletic experience when play eventually resumes.
“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.”