New SF LGBTQ+ dodgeball league emphasizes a welcoming sport space

  • by J.L. Odom
  • Wednesday February 7, 2024
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Adam Eckstein, left, Stonewall Sports San Francisco league operations director, is joined by Blake Gottlieb, league commissioner, and Thao Le, league umpire and mentorship director, as the group prepares for a dodgeball league. Photo: Thao Le<br>
Adam Eckstein, left, Stonewall Sports San Francisco league operations director, is joined by Blake Gottlieb, league commissioner, and Thao Le, league umpire and mentorship director, as the group prepares for a dodgeball league. Photo: Thao Le

For some, the mention of dodgeball brings to mind the 2004 sports comedy film starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. For others, it invokes memories of P.E. class and corresponding character-building moments. There's also general knowledge of dodgeball as being "that game where people throw balls at each other."

San Francisco is soon getting an updated reference to the sport: an LGBTQ+ dodgeball league, set to launch this month. Unlike the cutthroat version in movies and high school gymnasiums, this league encourages everyone to take part.

"One of the things we really wanted to do was to lean into creating a safe space for the members of our community to learn, to grow and to have fun," said Adam Eckstein, Stonewall Sports San Francisco operations director and co-founder.

Stonewall Sports SF is the league behind the dodgeball offering, which centers on skill development and creating a welcoming environment for the local LGBTQ+ community and allies, individuals across the gender spectrum, and players of all experience levels.

The age 21+ dodgeball "pilot program" gets underway Sunday, February 18, at 5, 6, or 7 p.m. with 10 v. 10 games happening in the Eureka Valley Recreation Center, 100 Collingwood Street in the LGBTQ Castro neighborhood. The action continues on February 25, when another night of matches will be held at those same times, followed by a tournament on March 3 from 5 to 8 p.m. Players will be assigned to one of several all-genders teams prior to the start of the program.

Stonewall Sports, a national LGBTQ+ nonprofit named after the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, was established in 2010 in Washington, D.C. The organization has since branched out to over 20 chapters, with the majority along the East Coast in states like Virginia (Norfolk; Richmond), North Carolina (Charlotte; Greensboro), and Massachusetts (Boston).

Eckstein, who is gay, and Blake Gottlieb founded Stonewall Sports San Francisco — the 25th of the chapters and the first on the West Coast — in 2023.

"The whole mission of Stonewall National is to provide a recreational sports league for LGBTQ+ people, and we certainly wanted to promote that and have that as a fixture here in San Francisco in particular," said Gottlieb, Stonewall Sports SF commissioner.

Their SF chapter, which Gottlieb, a gay man, described as "extremely queer-friendly," has overseen two successful seasons of kickball since its start, with community interest exceeding expectations.

"We filled up — we took as many people as we could accept. ... And it was a really great experience. I believe the players really appreciated what we did," said Gottlieb.

The inaugural kickball season, held over the summer, lasted 11 weeks and featured a "Booty Camp" training day, multiple games, playoffs, finals, an all-stars game, and social events, including an outing to Oracle Park for a San Francisco Giants game.

"So many people got involved and helped drive the whole league forward," Gottlieb said of the initial season.

During the fall, Stonewall Sports SF surveyed its kickball player base to gauge other sports they'd be interested in, and the overwhelming response was dodgeball, at around 70%.

As Eckstein noted, "That made the choice and trying to figure out what our next sport offering would be that much easier."

As with the kickball league, players who join the winter dodgeball program will receive plenty of guidance, with a Booty Camp training day scheduled pre-season and a plan to review key dodgeball skills prior to each of the matches.

"We're very oriented toward fairness and making sure that we're lifting the basic knowledge and skill of the whole league of players," said Gottlieb.

"And we know that we're going to have a lot of new players joining us, so we just want to make sure that folks get up to speed and that they have a good experience," added Eckstein.

League umpire and mentorship director Thao Le recognizes that sports like dodgeball can have a certain intimidation factor for newcomers. Plus, it can seem that sports are all about competing and winning, but those elements are "just icing on the cake," she said.

For her, it's more about getting people to enjoy playing — to the extent that they keep coming back, season after season.

"In this league, we encourage people, even if you've never played, to come join. We're here to help you, and we want you to have as much fun as we do," said Le, a lesbian.

When Eckstein and Gottlieb reached out to her about taking on a leadership role in Stonewall Sports SF, Le shared that it took her mere seconds to make a decision.

"Their objective was unique for me: they said, 'It's going to be all-inclusive. We want people to learn but also have fun.' And I was all in."

Le's mentoring efforts, coupled with the league's focus on good sports conduct, are facets in place to retain new and inexperienced players and ensure a supportive environment. These aspects are particularly significant for trans and nonbinary individuals, who might have had restricted access to, and less acceptance in, other sport spaces.

"For those players, they may be showing up to a team sport for the first time. So these are ways that we can really help support [them]," said Eckstein.

Another inclusive feature is in place during the registration period for full seasons of play, when Stonewall Sports SF reserves a time period exclusively for gender minority players to sign up prior to opening registration to the remaining community.

As Eckstein commented, "We want to do everything we can to continue to welcome these players to the league and ensure they're having a great experience. As a nonprofit, we're really mission driven and trying to hit that goal."

League shirts' inclusion of a "name and pronouns" section for players to write in their preferred name and pronouns further conveys the message that all are welcome to participate in Stonewall Sports SF — in kickball, dodgeball or both.

"I think that also just sends a signal that this is something that matters — you need to respect people's identities in this league. It's not just some kind of anonymous group of people and we're all there to just throw balls at each other. After games, we're there at bars. And even to just know someone's name off the bat or not to have to ask it multiple times is part of what's helping people to get to know each other and be friendly," said Gottlieb.

Registration for the dodgeball league officially opened on January 29, with about half the available spots filling shortly thereafter. A fair share of Stonewall Sports SF kickball players have signed up, as have many new folks. The cost is $25 through February 9, then it increases to $35.

For Eckstein, "The community is really responding to what we're offering, and there's definitely folks out there that want additional sporting options. We're happy to be able to provide that, and we're very excited for our upcoming season."

To register for Stonewall Sports SF's winter dodgeball pilot program, click here.

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