Nick Lee: I won’t stay silent

This piece was first published by Outsports on August 17, 2021.

“Maricón.”

In late May, I was playing doubles in an away match for a U.S. Tennis Assn. men’s 5.0 league in Westchester, New York, when a player on the opposing team yelled this word to himself in the singles match one court over after he had lost a point.

While clearly directed at himself, I took offense to the use of this derogatory slur, knowing that it meant “faggot” in Spanish. I immediately asked him, “Can you not use that word? It’s not appropriate.” He said, “Yes.” In that moment, I incorrectly assumed that the incident had ended. Instead, that brief interaction would lead to an ordeal that would span two months.

A few games later, after the singles player on my team — who was on the same side of the court as me — won a point, I said to him, “Simon, vamos tío,” which means, “Simon, let’s go bro” in Spanish (I lived in Madrid for 10 months). Simon is fluent in Spanish and I said this to him to cheer him on.

His opponent — the same one who had yelled “maricón” at himself — heard me cheering on my teammate and asked me if I spoke any Spanish. I said I did. Then, in a frenzy to defend his earlier use of the slur, he proclaimed to me that he was from a country where “maricón” could have different meanings and that when he had said “maricón” he had been saying it to himself and not to my teammate.

He additionally scolded me for having dared to say anything to him during his match. I told him that the word was still a slur and that it was completely appropriate for me to have told him not to say it.

As the altercation continued, both teams began to notice the argument and wanted to know what was going on. As he went on defending himself, I explained to both teams that he had yelled the word “maricón” and that it meant “faggot.”

The majority of the people went silent. A couple of people on my team reacted with disbelief, our team captain Brian — who like me is also openly gay — uttering in confusion, “Excuse me?” A moment later, in what felt like a swift and surreal transition out of the altercation, we were getting right back to our matches. In my mind, I was still fuming.

Filled with anger and disbelief, I struggled to regain focus and compose myself to continue competing as I attempted to get ready to return serve. We quickly lost the game, which ended the match.

While the opposing team was friendly as my team stuck around to watch the last match finish, there was never any apology from the player who had yelled “maricón” or from his team captain for what had happened. I would have been ready to let the incident go if the player who had used the slur had just apologized and said he wouldn’t use it again.

After deliberating with Brian and the director of tennis at the club I work at and play for, we filed a USTA league grievance. In early June, we received the outcome of the grievance from the USTA grievance committee.

They issued a strict warning to our opposing team, stating that if this player “engages in any similar behavior going forward, such will likely result in a prolonged suspension of play” and that they were “deeply concerned not only for the term used but equally for the lack of sincere apology and lack of perceived understanding of the hurtful impact of this occurrence.”

They also wrote, “We would have hoped to have read a sincere apology; instead we received a statement stating that the term would not be used again to ‘avoid offending anyone.’ ’’ In addition to sending the opposing team educational materials on diversity, equity and inclusion, the committee noted that they “cannot demand a written or verbal apology” as “such could be recognized as insincere or forced” but that they “strongly recommend that after reflection and attention to above [the player from the opposing team] will take it upon himself to issue a sincere apology.”

While I appreciated how seriously the USTA took the grievance and their response to the incident, I was disappointed that the player from the opposing team and their captain seemed to be indifferent to what had transpired even after I had expressed in the grievance why the derogatory language had offended me as well as why the altercation had upset me enough to file a grievance.

Even a couple of weeks after the grievance decision and with our home match against this team quickly approaching as we neared the end of June (each team in the league plays each other in one home and one away match), we still didn’t receive any apology. As a result, the incident still felt completely unresolved.

Due to all of this and our goal to promote a welcoming and inclusive environment at our home match, our club decided that the player, who the grievance was filed against, wouldn’t be allowed to come to the club to participate in the match.

When Brian informed the captain of the other team that we were not allowing this player to participate in our home match, he was met with backlash.

Unwilling to acknowledge the gravity of the situation or to respond appropriately to the grievance decision, he told Brian that we should just move on from what had happened. He then emailed our club about our decision in order to convince us to let his player participate in the match.

A few hours later, after he was informed by his captain that he was not being allowed to come to our club, the player who I filed the grievance against wrote an email apology to our club:

“I am very sorry about the incident that happened at the last match. It was not my intention to make anyone upset or feel uncomfortable. In my culture, this term is not used in a bad way. I will be more careful with this going forward. I hope we can move past this and play some tennis. I can reach out to Nicholas directly if you provide me [with] his email.”

The fact that this apology only came after him being informed that he was not allowed to play in the match at our club — and multiple weeks after the grievance decision in which he was encouraged by the USTA local league grievance committee to reach out and apologize — made it seem that this apology was insincere and was issued with the purpose of him being allowed to play in the match. When the USTA asked me if I was willing to have a conversation over the phone with this player, facilitated by the USTA, I said yes. However, when the USTA reached out to this player, he never responded.

Our club stuck by its decision to not allow this player at the club for the match. Instead of respecting our club’s decision, the captain of the opposing team refused to have his team play the match and their team didn’t show up. When we informed the USTA and they intervened in an attempt to have the match rescheduled, he again stated that they had decided to forfeit the match.

However, as per USTA rules and regulations, a team can’t simply forfeit an entire match. League standings are based on a points system. For the 5.0 league, 1st singles and 1st doubles are each worth 5 points and 2nd doubles is worth 4 points. Forfeiting an entire match would result in the other team gaining 14 points, which could drastically impact the standings of the entire league.

For this reason, a team can’t just forfeit an entire match without a justifiable reason and members of the forfeiting team could be sanctioned by being banned from league play the following season. Consequently, it was in the USTA’s best interest to not have to go through with penalizing this team and have this match played, regardless of how inappropriately this team was behaving.

Once it was communicated to both teams that a team couldn’t just forfeit an entire match and clarified that our club had the right to not allow this player at the match, the opposing team captain finally agreed to play us and reluctantly accepted our club’s decision to not allow his player to come to the club. About a month after the originally scheduled date for the match, the match was finally played. Given all that had happened, I decided that for my own mental health and well-being, I wouldn’t participate in the home match.

Ideally, there would’ve been a dialogue between this player and me and a resolution. I know that when he said “maricón,” he wasn’t directing it at me as a gay man and wasn’t saying the word with the intent of causing harm to anyone. However, as the common phrase goes, there is “intent versus impact.” While this player didn’t intend to offend me, he did. He and the captain of the team seemed to be unwilling to own up to and sincerely apologize for their actions or show any remorse for the negative impact all of this has had on me.

Now, almost three months after the incident, I still feel that this ordeal remains unresolved. As I reflect back on all that has happened, I’m filled with disappointment.

To me, it seems that this player and his captain have learned nothing from all that has happened. They had multiple opportunities to redeem themselves and chose not to. As disappointing as this is, I have to accept that some things are out of my control and that I have to move on.

Additionally, while I understand why it was in the best interest of the league to have this match completed and to avoid a default that would impact the league standings, the fact that there was no alternative made me feel that the opposing team was getting away with their shameful behavior. I personally don’t know what the right alternative would’ve been.

However, what I do know is that there still exists unresolved tension between the two teams and if I participate in this league again next summer, I don’t know if I would be comfortable playing against this team. This uncertainty is probably one of the most difficult parts of this whole ordeal for me to accept.

I want to say that I’m out and proud as a gay man in tennis and that no one can get in the way of me competing. However, I may no longer be comfortable competing against this team. Something valuable that I’ve learned from this experience is that I don’t need to force myself to be in uncomfortable situations all the time just to try to prove something to myself and to others.

It’s OK for me to take care of myself and to not compete if I think that’s what’s best for me. This doesn’t mean that I’m not being true to myself or that I’m letting the “bad guys” win. I know that I have countless other opportunities to play tennis in environments where I feel welcomed and with people who accept and support me for who I am, and me not playing against one team in one league is trivial in comparison to all of these other places for me in tennis.

The 18 and over men’s 5.0 league consists of many coaches, including myself. As coaches, it’s not only our job to teach our students how to play and compete, but also the importance of certain values such as good sportsmanship and inclusivity. Entrusted with that role, it’s imperative that we exemplify these values when we ourselves compete, hold ourselves to a high standard, and hold each other accountable. Otherwise, what example and precedent are we setting for those we coach?

I won’t stay silent when hearing the word “maricón” or “faggot” like I would have when I wasn’t out and didn’t accept myself for being gay. I won’t tolerate justification for using a derogatory slur that one thinks is seemingly benign as it comes at the expense of a marginalized identity.

I no longer question my place in sports. I refuse to stand idly by for anyone that thinks it’s OK to use homophobic slurs during a sports competition and make me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

The years of suffering in silence are over. I’m here to compete as someone who loves tennis and with pride as an openly gay man, and there is no stopping me.

Nick Lee is a recent graduate from Vassar College (Class of 2019) where he majored in Psychology and Hispanic Studies and was a four-year member of the Vassar men’s tennis team. He was born and raised in New York. He is currently a staff tennis pro at New Rochelle Racquet Club located in Westchester, NY. This fall, he will be pursuing a Master of Education in Counseling with a Specialization in Sport Psychology at Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. He can be reached by email at nilee@bu.edu, on Facebook as Nicholas Lee, or on Instagram @nicklee.aka.licknee.

Read Nick’s coming out story.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

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