Image of a group of women playing flag football

Photography by Daniella Leacock / Courtesy of Flags of Glory

Sports leagues can empower you—on and off the field

Women’s and LGBTQ+-positive teams are creating a space for deep connections and belonging

In 2013, when Binh Chuong’s friend asked her to join a women’s hockey league, Chuong immediately dismissed the idea. She said, “I don’t know how to play hockey—I’ve never skated.” Her friend persisted: “No, it’s ball hockey; you run.” Chuong mulled that over for a moment. “I thought, ‘I can run. Why not try? The skills will come as I progress,’” she recalls.

Her willingness to give it a try that first time grew into six summers of playing with the Toronto Women’s Ball Hockey Association. And, as it has been for many young women playing in sports leagues, the experience has been transformative for Chuong.

By playing team sports like ball hockey, basketball and flag football, young women are not just reaping the benefits that come with developing fitness and athletic skills; they’re also seeing some surprising improvements in their everyday lives. Some find new career paths, others develop deeper cultural connections and many enjoy feeling like they finally belong.

Photograph of two women playing ball hockey

A place to learn leadership
On Monday nights, more than 200 women like Chuong come together to play ball hockey across the city. “Skating is potentially an obstacle to playing hockey [on the ice], but anyone can run forward or backward,” says Chuong. Thanks to this version of the sport, she says, people in the GTA who weren’t exposed to skating as kids can try hockey in a different way.

Chuong’s hard work has earned her a position in provincial and national tournaments. She credits league president Beth Brotherstone, who has been involved with the sport for 25 years, for boosting her confidence both inside and outside the game.

Brotherstone shows tenacity, initiative and dedication in the work she does to grow the league, says Chuong, and that makes her a great role model. “Also, when I think of Beth, I think inclusiveness,” says Chuong. “She has created an environment where everyone is welcome.” Seeing these qualities in action has helped Chuong overcome her fear of being decisive and making her voice heard in her workplace—attributes that are vital to her role. (Photography by Albert Lam)

Photograph of a group of women playing basketball

A place to make cultural—and professional—connections
While basketball player Gobi Sriranganathan grew up playing competitive sports, she was often the only Tamil person on the team—and that could be isolating. “Tamil women didn’t typically play high-level sports when I was young,” says Sriranganathan. When she discovered the Women’s Ontario Tamil Sports League (WOTSL) three years ago, she signed up and immediately felt a greater connection to her culture. Today she is co-commissioner of the league.

WOTSL was founded in 2015, when a group of Tamil women who used to watch men’s basketball games realized they also wanted to play. Their league reaches its maximum capacity of about 90 players every season. And on Saturdays the bleachers are packed as teams face off at Stephen Leacock Collegiate Institute in Scarborough.

Sriranganathan says WOTSL offers more than an opportunity to play a skilled game of basketball. “You spend November to April with the same core group of 20 girls and coaches, so you form strong friendships and social connections,” she explains. Through all the on- and off-court bonding, WOTSL has organically evolved into a community network: Players have built businesses together in fields such as makeup artistry, photography and DJing.

And the basketball enthusiast has also found her calling through playing in the league. “I ended up going back to school to explore how sport has helped Tamil people in Toronto adapt to different cultures and environments,” says Sriranganathan. As part of her PhD studies at York University, she holds weekly tutorials for first-year kinesiology students to discuss social and cultural topics related to their profession. While she has just begun her thesis, her research will explore the barriers to participation in sports for women of colour and female immigrants, and identify ways to break them down. (Photography by Annojh Sinnarasa)

Photograph of a group of women playing flag football

A place to feel like you belong
Christine Hsu wanted to create a safe space in sports for queer, trans and non-binary people. In 2013, she helped found Flags of Glory, a Toronto LGBTQ+ flag football league. Hsu has played and coached in the league, but today her role is more about shaping it.

“Flag football is [part] of a sports culture that is hypermasculine,” says Hsu. “This is the only flag football league in Toronto that’s explicitly shaped to be safer and more inclusive of gender-diverse people.”

As Hsu took on a greater organizational role, she had the chance to listen to what players needed. The insights she garnered as a volunteer strengthened her skills in her career as a social inclusion consultant. “I was getting to put theory into practice and witness how policy, outreach work and initiatives can help increase access to sports,” explains Hsu.

Players join Flags of Glory to meet new people, play in a highly inclusive environment and participate in skills clinics. “The league has helped build confidence in people who didn’t feel like they could belong in sports because of past negative experiences,” says Hsu.

Joanna Drummond, a player and executive league member, agrees: “We’re a stronger queer community for the friendships we make in leagues like ours. My first Pride Toronto after I joined Flags of Glory was so different—I knew more people in the community, and I felt included in a way I never had before in Toronto.”

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