When Neil dug his phone out of his locker after practice, he found 17 missed calls from his PR agent. He wracked his brain, trying to remember if he had spoken to any reporters recently, but he was drawing a blank. He dialed him back as he began his walk home.
“Neil!” Eric answered on the first ring. “Where have you been? I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all afternoon.”
“I was in practice,” Neil said. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, in fact I have good news for you!” Eric told him. “Someone on the NEL board put forward a motion to make it so teams aren’t allowed to have morality clauses in players’ contracts related to sexual orientation, and to make it illegal to fire or trade a player based on sexual orientation. They’re voting on it next week.”
“Okay… That’s great,” Neil said, “but why did you need to get a hold of me so quickly?”
“Well, there’s no way to know yet which way the vote will swing. But,” Eric hesitated, then forged on, “if a few of the most popular players happened to come out between now and then, it would put a lot of pressure on the board to do the right thing. I don’t want to force you out if that’s not what you want,” he insisted, “but if you do think you might want to be out at some point, I really think you should seize this moment.”
“So you want Andrew to come out too?” Neil asked.
“That’s up to him and his PR agent, my main concern is you,” Eric said. “But yes, in my ideal world, every LGBTQ player you know would come out tomorrow. If enough of you managed to do it on the same day, it would also make it easier on all of you. And , even if only a few of you come out at first, others will follow your lead.”
Neil thought about it. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, to not have to field questions about whether he had settled down and found a girlfriend yet. “Can I talk to Andrew about it and call you back?” he asked.
“Of course, as long as you actually do call me back,” Eric agreed.
They said their goodbyes and hung up, and Neil started thinking about what other players he might contact if he did decide to go through with this. Allison of course, Jean and Jeremy, Laila Dermott… he could probably even convince Kevin; he’d come a long way from the man who insisted it would be easier for Neil to make Court if he remained heterosexual. He was still mulling it over when he walked into the apartment and found Andrew finishing up a phone call.
Andrew said goodbye and walked over to Neil, who asked, “That was your PR agent, wasn’t it?”
“No, that was Renee,” he corrected. “I spoke to Morgan earlier.”
“About coming out?” Neil guessed. When Andrew nodded, he continued, “What do you think about it?”
“Lying has never suited me as well as it did you,” Andrew answered.
Neil grinned. “I’m tired of lying. Let’s do this.”
A little over 24 hours and several phone calls later, everything was set. As luck would have it, it was a Friday which meant most of the LGBTQ players they’d managed to get a hold of had games.
Due to the timezones Neil, Andrew and Kevin were playing first, and they met early at the stadium as agreed. Andrew was carrying a plastic bag full of coloured tape. It had actually been his idea, that they each tape the end of their stick to resemble their corresponding pride flag.
Neil was just going with the asexual colours, because the demi flag would be too hard to recreate on the end of an Exy racquet. He figured it wasn’t anyone else’s business, anyway. At least he could make it clear that he and Andrew were committed to one another.
Meanwhile Kevin was decking his stick out in pink, purple, and blue, while Andrew went with the full rainbow. They had passed the idea on to all the players they could get a hold of, and Neil was actually looking forward to watching the other games later and seeing how many people came forward.
They had warned their coach, Dahlia Green upon arrival about what they were planning, and she had promptly left the building with a promise to be back soon. She got back just as they were finishing up with their sticks, about ten minutes before the rest of the team would normally start trickling in for a game day.
“Okay so I think I bought out three different stores,” she began without preamble, “but I managed to get enough rainbow headbands and shoelaces for anyone on the team who wants to show their support. Do you three want to make a statement before the game? After? I’ve got your backs, however you want to spin this.”
Neil was floored. It wasn’t that he expected Dahlia to be unsupportive, but to go out of her way on game day when she had enough on her plate already? Something must have shown on his face, because Andrew rolled his eyes and answered for them.
“We’ve all talked to our PR agents, we’ll take the post-game interview,” he said. “Neil and I will most likely make our relationship clear as well.”
“Great,” Dahlia said. “Do you want to talk to your teammates? I can just mention it in the pre-game talk if that’s easier.”
“Yeah,” Kevin answered, “I think that would be best.”
Just then their starting backliners walked in, and other players weren’t far behind. Dahlia went back to her office while the rest of the team started to arrive. Some of them glanced questioningly at Neil, Andrew and Kevin’s sticks. Neil’s striker sub, Nina, shyly asked to borrow the tape he had been using and proceeded to wrap the end of her own racquet in the ace colours as well.
Once all the players had showed up and were milling around the lounge area, Dahlia came back out of her office and called for attention.
“Just wanted to give you all a heads-up before we get into the game stuff,” she started. “A few of our players are coming out tonight, and they might take some flack for that. As a team and as an organisation, we stand with them and support them. Not that I would expect it from any of you, but it should go without saying that if I see or hear any negativity from our home benches, you’ll get to ride that bench for the next game or two.” She paused to let her words sink in. “I also went out and picked up some rainbow shoelaces and headbands, for anyone who wants to show their support.”
She tossed a few bags onto the table in front of her and stepped aside. Within seconds every player in the room was on their feet, converging on the bags.
By the time they were lining up to head out onto the court, the team looked like a subtle pride parade. No one other than Nina had claimed the coloured tape, which Neil supposed was because they didn’t want to be confused for coming out themselves. Still, everyone had replaced their shoelaces with the rainbow ones, and anyone who had enough hair to tie back was wearing a rainbow headband under their helmet. A few people had even tied the extra headbands around their arms or stretched them on top of their helmets.
Neil and Kevin were first in line as starting strikers. Neil’s heart was pounding in his rib cage, and he itched to just get it over with and run out there. Finally, the announcer started rattling off the names of the home team, and they walked out.
The volume was insane. The crowd hadn’t been this loud at the Olympics last year, Neil was sure. It started to calm down once the rest of the team came in after Neil and Kevin, only to pick up again with renewed vigour when Andrew came out. Ha. Came out . Neil grinned to himself. Then, he grinned up at the fans because they were cheering for him . For him, and Andrew, and Kevin, and even Nina who they barely knew. He felt invincible.
The other team didn’t stand a chance.
Neil was pretty sure they would have ridden the high of their fans support to a win either way, but their opponents truly sealed their fate when Neil’s backliner mark used his first check to snarl the word “fag” at him. Neil was still filled with vicious joy, and now he had spite to throw into the mix. “Hey Kev!” He called when the play reset after Kevin’s goal, not even bothering to switch to French. “Wright here seems to think he has something to prove about sexuality having any bearing on our skills as players.”
Kevin’s eyes narrowed, and Neil recognised the same cold triumph that he had worn when he told Riko they would see him at the championship game. By the time he was subbed out, Neil could tell that Andrew had caught his comment too. He was shutting down the goal.
At halftime the score was already 6-0, and Neil watched Andrew walk over to say something to Dahlia. She in turn approached the second goalie, and at the end of their conversation, the other goalie gave Andrew a pat on the shoulder and a grin.
Neil’s suspicions were confirmed when Andrew walked back out with them in the second half, and that was when he knew the other team were not only going to lose, they were going to be demolished. The backliners had caught on and redoubled their efforts to keep the ball away from Andrew’s goal. They were full of joy and spite and pride , and they were working together better than ever.
The final score was 13-0. Neil’s original backliner mark had been subbed out early in the game and hadn’t come back on. When they lined up to shake hands, the opposing captain held up the line to talk to Neil. “Whatever Wright said to you, that’s not how the rest of us feel,” she said. “You played a fantastic game tonight.”
“Thanks,” Neil said, and at a loss for words, “good game.”
The press were waiting when Neil, Andrew and Kevin walked off the court.
The first question Neil caught was, “Are you coming out?”
“Yes,” he answered for all of them.
“Can you tell us about the colours on your racquet, Neil?” someone else called.
Neil located the questioner and gave her a withering look. “You had literally the entire game to google that, why are you asking me?”
“Andrew, are you and Kevin together?” a third reporter asked.
“No,” Andrew said. Neil glanced at him and he rolled his eyes, but elaborated. “I got stuck with Josten.”
That set off a whole flurry of new questions until Neil shut them down. “We aren’t here to talk about our relationship and we won’t answer any more questions on that subject.”
“Why now?” someone finally asked, and Kevin took this one with his practised media face.
“The NEL board is voting next week on a motion that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in hiring, trading, and contract negotiation. We wanted our fans to know how important this issue is to us, in hopes of encouraging the board to make the right choice,” he said. Then he got that look in his eyes, the one that said he was about to stir up shit. “You’ll want to keep an eye on the Exy games happening all across the country tonight. We’re not the only players whose careers will be affected the board’s decision, not by a long shot.”
With that Kevin walked off. Neil and Andrew were quick to follow, leaving the reporters scrambling for their phones to try to find out what was going on at other games.
Neil had about a hundred notifications when he took his phone out of his locker. Turning my phone off until tomorrow , he texted Eric. Then he really did turn it off, and all that was left to do was change out and head home.
Later he would find out that all told, fifteen professional Exy players came out between Friday and Saturday nights’ games. It wouldn’t stop there, though. The trend would catch on, and dozens of athletes in other sports would come out in the following weeks.
None of that mattered to Neil the night that he came out, though. All that mattered was that he got to walk out of the stadium hand-in-hand with Andrew, and climb into their car together to go home.