In honor of LGBTQ+ Pride Month, today we are highlighting the Giants' partnership with the New York Gay Flag Football League.
The NYGFL is a 7-on-7 flag football league inclusive to all but catering primarily to the LGBTQ+ community in and around New York City. The season lasts eight weeks, with all games taking place on Saturday nights, before the playoffs begin in which every team makes the playoffs.
The league consists of two divisions, the Open Division and the Women's + Division. The Open Division has no restrictions based on gender, but is mostly made up of athletes who identify as male. The Women's + Division is mainly composed of players who identify as female. The NYGFL has two seasons participants can play in, one in the fall and one in the spring.
The league has seen tremendous growth over the years and is currently the largest gay flag football league in the country. After being founded in 2004 with just six teams and 80 players, the league has grown into 24+ teams (combined between the two divisions) and a community of well over 350 active members annually.
The NYGFL also holds a special connection to the New York Giants. Natalie Wizel, Associate Producer in the organization's Marketing department, has been an active member in the league since 2016 and a captain since 2017.
"I like being around like-minded individuals and also people that are passionate about the same thing," Wizel told Giants.com. "I grew up a huge football fan. I never played it, obviously, because I was a small girl. I couldn't play in a tackle league if I wanted to. But it's a sport I always wanted to play, so having the opportunity to play flag football is awesome.
"But then to join a league that was so inclusive and people that were like me, that have been through similar situations as me and have struggled in similar ways as me, it's been really welcoming and a great community. It's also great networking as far as I've met other people through the league for benefits in all facets of life. It's definitely really nice to have, and the community keeps growing every year."
Wizel started as a Production Intern with the Giants during the 2014 season before working as a freelance employee for the next few years. She was then brought on as a full-time employee of the team in 2019. This upcoming season will be Wizel's eighth with the Giants.
The partnership between the Giants and the NYGFL began in 2017. Upon becoming a captain in the league that year, Wizel began to try out and participate on some of the league's tournament teams. The NYGFL sends teams to several tournaments each year, consisting of some of the league's most competitive players, including the Florida Sunshine Cup Tournament every February. These tournaments require booking flights and hotels, so team members reach out to people within their circles for sponsorship opportunities. This was what sparked the connection between the NYGFL and the Giants.
"Whenever we're playing in tournaments, we're always trying to fundraise just because normally you're flying and staying in hotels, so the money can add up for those things," Wizel said. "Everyone was kind of pulling from their own lives, thinking about who they knew as far as sponsorship opportunities. At the time, I was working with the Giants and thought this could be a really nice partnership for both sides.
"I reached out to (Director of Community Relations and Youth Football) Ethan Medley, and he was extremely open and receptive to getting the partnership going, which was really exciting for me as far as being able to bridge two things that are very prominent in my life. That was really cool. The Giants became partners with the NYGFL before it was popular to have professional teams partner with LGBTQ groups and teams in that nature. I would say they were ahead of the curve and always very open to that, which I definitely appreciate."
At the time Wizel approached the organization about becoming a sponsor, her lifestyle was not necessarily known within the organization. However, bringing this partnership opportunity to the team was a way to open the door to everyone knowing, which she was more than happy to do. As Wizel put it, "the more people that are out and proud, the better."
While having the Giants as a sponsor helped fund some of the league's tournament teams over the years, the partnership goes well beyond that.
The Giants, along with the NFL and the New York Jets, also served as a presenting partner of Gay Bowl XIX, a tournament held in New York City in 2019. The Gay Bowl is an annual tournament put together by the National Gay Flag Football League that brings together hundreds of LGBTQ+ and straight ally athletes to compete, connect and unite as a community around the game of football. Former Giants long snapper and two-time Super Bowl champion Zak DeOssie attended a celebration event for Gay Bowl XIX, where he addressed the crowd and helped hand out trophies to the athletes.
"Representation is essential to achieving LGBTQIA+ inclusivity in sports, equal rights, and breaking down stereotypes," said Monty Clinton, the Commissioner of the NYGFL. "Recognition from major sports organizations like the NFL and the New York Giants helps to legitimize what we do as athletes and amplifies our community's voice. The support and partnership that we've gotten with the Giants, it really helps us expand our reach and our platform on a much larger scale.
"We're a nonprofit institution, so being able to work with the Giants, and in our efforts to fight for equal rights, diversity, and inclusion on every level, it means a lot. It continues to help us even function as an organization, and helps give us a platform to spread our mission and the purpose that we are as a league."
Clinton has been a part of the NYGFL for over 10 years. Upon looking for a community to be a part of and trying to find friends and people to connect with in New York City, he found out about the league by accident. After some initial hesitation about joining the NYGFL, it did not take long for Clinton to realize the impact the league would have on his life. He began volunteering for some of the league's social events and started to become more and more involved over the years. He would go on to become commissioner just over five years ago.
"When I first joined the NYGFL, I wasn't comfortable with my own sexuality or my role within the LGBTQIA+ community," Clinton told Giants.com. "Even though I already had an amazing circle of gay friends and was in a long-term relationship with a boyfriend, the league provided me with a safe space to find my voice and the freedom to realize my authentic self. That is really powerful when you think about it.
"In my experience, the desire to socialize, compete, and play football is what initially drives people to join our league. However, over time, league members see how the NYGFL and other similar LGBTQIA+ organizations foster such a meaningful community. At the end of the day, it's really the relationships built along the way, the inclusivity championed every day, and most of all, the safe space created that allows people to thrive and live their truths. This sense of belonging is what ultimately brings people back year after year. I have met many of my best friends through the NYGFL. Even though a lot of them have retired from playing football, we're still actively involved in each other's lives."
Wizel echoed those sentiments, noting how the league is competitive with everyone wanting to win the championship. However, when the final whistle blows and the game is over, everybody is friends. Members from opposing teams will go out and grab food or drinks after the games on Saturday nights. Most importantly, the NYGFL offers a place for people to feel comfortable with themselves, both on and off the field.
"We all really like football, but it's also a good way to bring the community together and have a support system. That's why people like to be a part of the league," said Wizel.
In addition to the football aspect of the league, the NYGFL has also done some tremendous work in the community.
The league has supported numerous organizations over the years in its effort to strive for equality for everyone. Some of these groups include the Hetrick-Martin Institute, the Ali Forney Center, The Trevor Project, God's Love We Deliver, the Marsha P. Johnson Institute, Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, Center for Black Equity, New York City Cares Coat Drive and many, many more.
"Over the years, we've been actively delivering on our mission to give back more than we take by contributing to organizations that support the community in need and push for racial and LGBTQIA+ equality," Clinton added.
The Giants are proud to be a sponsor of the New York Gay Flag Football League and will continue to do all that the organization can to push for equality for all.