NFL execs connect with LGBTQ youth

Longtime NFL cornerback Troy Vincent met with teens as part of the You Can Play project, intended to connect LGBTQ youth with leaders from the pro sports community. AP Photo/Doug Benc

NEW YORK -- Troy Vincent is being asked to share his name, his favorite childhood toy and his PGP -- preferred gender pronoun.

The introductions are an icebreaker. More than a dozen people are gathered in a conference room at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which works to empower, educate and advocate for LGBTQ youth. A teenage girl speaks first. She says her name, that she prefers "she" and "her" as pronouns, then mentions an obscure toy.

Vincent goes third.

"My name is Troy Vincent," he says, quickly becoming animated as he thinks about his favorite toy. "When I was a kid, I loved the Big Wheel." He smiles and mimics turning the imaginary handles of the plastic tricycle.

Then he leans back and nods once. He is done speaking.

But his turn isn't over yet. There is a long pause before someone from across the room asks, "And your PGP, Troy?"

Vincent played 15 seasons in the NFL. He is now 43 years old and works as the league's senior vice president for player engagement. In his prime, which wasn't all that long ago, he was fast and strong, one of the best cornerbacks in a league known for its physicality and tough-guy culture. So it's not surprising that Vincent has assumed everyone else in the room would figure his PGP is "he" -- all masculine pronouns, please.

Then again, the whole point of this meeting is to quit making assumptions -- about LGBTQ people, yes, but also about football players. Vincent has already explained that he believes a false narrative exists in which football locker rooms are often perceived as barbaric, homophobic places, especially after the recent scandal involving suspended Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito.

Vincent wants to reframe the thinking, to reshape the dialogue. It's part of the reason he and Dwight Hollier, a former NFL linebacker, are representing the league at this event Tuesday afternoon, the soft launch of the "High Five" initiative created by You Can Play and intended to connect LGBTQ youth with leaders from the pro sports community.

"Male," Vincent says. And now the introductions continue. The next teen in the room identifies his PGP as "he, she, they, Z -- anything, as long as it's respectful."

Hollier, who works as the NFL's director of transition and clinical services, is sitting a few seats down from Vincent. "Hi, my name is Dwight," he says. "All male pronouns. And my favorite toys as a kid were Hot Wheels, the race cars."

At first glance, it would seem that Vincent and Hollier have little in common with the teens in this room. But finding the similarities is actually quite easy. "This is exactly what we do at the NFL rookie symposium," Vincent says soon after people have finished introducing themselves. "We break down into groups, then go around and do an icebreaker, so that you get to know something personal about everyone."

One of the teens mentions the work they all do trying to educate their peers, a challenging process because so many of the youths in the program have built walls around themselves. They've been abandoned by their families or by society, and opening up to other people -- even those trying to help -- can feel overwhelming.

"We also have a peer-to-peer model at the NFL," Vincent says. "Football is a mask. It allows us to hide, to not have to discuss certain parts of our lives. For a football player, his play is how he communicates, how he is celebrated. We're trying to break that down and have conversations around family, relationships, sexual orientation, mental health."

Each time a teen speaks, Vincent and Hollier nod slightly, making connections between their jobs and the services Hetrick-Martin provides. "I actually feel like we're doing similar work," Vincent says. "The subjects are the same; the setting is just different."

Vincent is full of questions during his visit to Hetrick-Martin. At one point, HMI chief executive Thomas Krever mentions how important it is to serve the youth who identify as "Q" -- questioning. Vincent leans forward. "Wait a second," he says. "You just said that 'Q' stands for 'questioning'? But I've always been taught that the Q stood for 'queer.'"

He is still talking about this revelation a few minutes later, as he tours a lower floor at HMI, which also houses the Harvey Milk High School (named for the murdered activist and politician). "That was a great piece of knowledge I just received," Vincent says. "Dwight and I are here to learn and go back to educate the players, who also want to learn."

Vincent believes that NFL locker rooms are ready for an openly gay player. "As far as we're concerned, it's 'Come on out!'" he says, waving his arms as if beckoning someone into a room. He adds that he had gay teammates when he played. "We aren't worried about the locker room. We're worried about how to keep a guy safe when he leaves the locker room."

As the tour continues, an HMI staffer stops and points out the hallway that leads to the counseling services unit, behind a thick white door that requires an electronic badge for entry. Vincent and Hollier note that, in their playing careers, the majority of personal resources available to players -- counseling, career development -- were often located on a separate floor from the team locker room or down a hallway where players had no other reason to venture. "So if you got off at that floor, or were seen walking to that hallway, everyone on the team was like, 'What's up with Troy?'" Vincent says. "There was an intense stigma attached to getting help -- any kind of help."

"It was almost like you were colluding," Hollier adds.

Vincent says most teams got smart and moved their counseling offices next to the locker rooms. But he wants to know whether that same stigma exists at Harvey Milk, when someone is seen walking through that door. "Does everyone else turn their head and say, 'Hmm, I wonder what's going on with so-and-so?'" he asks. The staffer assures Vincent that this isn't the case because the offices in question hold other services beyond counseling.

After nearly two hours on site, Vincent and Hollier thank the teens for allowing them behind the scenes. "These are your safe spaces, and we feel privileged that you allowed us into them," Vincent says. "As football players, we know a lot about protecting our safe spaces. That's exactly how we feel about the locker room."

As Vincent and Hollier walk out of the building, they continue to discuss the parallels between the two spaces, and what kind of message they'll bring back to NFL players.

"People always ask me what's keeping the first NFL player from coming out," Vincent says. "And they seem to think that there is something the league is doing wrong that's preventing it, or that there's something specific about the culture. I've never believed that. The same obstacles that keep people all across the world from coming out are what keep an NFL player from coming out."

He pauses for a moment. "The locker room is ready," he says. "But days like today make us even more prepared."