Matt Herek was in his first season playing in the Chicago Metropolitan Sports Association ( CMSA ). He was on a flag football team sponsored by Hydrate Nightclub back in September 2005 and, well, he had a slight disagreement with an opponent.
"I do not remember a lot from my first game other than drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for promising to run over an opposing player who was being a little whiney," he said, laughing.
Herek's team ultimately won that game, his temper has long since subsided and CMSA remains a focus of his.
"I'm not a player with a long list of on-field accomplishments. The highlight for me and what continues to drive my involvement in the organization is the connections I have made with different generations of the LGBT community," he said.
Herek, 42, who lives in Sheridan Park, was named the new CMSA president this summer. The Bay City, Michigan native has been a CMSA player, captain, commissioner, and member of its board of directors.
He still plays flag football, and previously has played dodgeball, beach volleyball, softball, kickball and ultimate.
"I take CMSA very personally — it provided me with a whole new perspective when I joined. Many, if not all, of my closest friends met me through [CMSA]," he said. "This is a place that is 'worth it' [and] I want to help everyone find value in CMSA so that, in 2027, we look back on 50 years of inclusive athletics in Chicago and simply say 'Wow!'
"Being elected president of CMSA means that, for the next year, I am entrusted with the stewardship of an organization that has served as a safe space for multiple generations of LGBT athletes. It means following in the footsteps of great past leaders like Marcia Hill, Shawn Albritton, and Brian Kupersmit. CMSA is a small but important part of Chicago.
"The opportunity to provide energetic and thoughtful leadership to our current board of directors is exciting to me. Michael Rice, Lindsay Frounfelkner, Jay Gonnam, Brandon Knop and I are going to stand shoulder to shoulder as the elected leadership of CMSA for the next year to fortify CMSA and help it grow as much as we can."
Herek said his short-term goals including making sure all sports commissioners have the needed resources to be successful. "That requires us to reach out and ask the right questions of them. The kinetic energy of CMSA does not flow from a central board of directorsit starts with the volunteer leaders of the individual leagueseach with different needs," he said.
Long-term, "CMSA needs to fully evaluate what athletic opportunities we are offering and where we are offering them. For the most part we are on target, but there is a fine line between tradition and bad habit when it comes to some of our current offerings."
There were about 3,200 CMSA members in 2018-2019 and beach volleyball is the association's largest sport with more than 1,000 participant. A lot of credit for the stability in beach volleyball goes to its commissioner Kevin Dietz, Herek said.
"We see the same trend-lines with athletics that our culture sees with athletics. Sports like softball and football have seen some decline in numbers while other sports like soccer and ultimate continue to grow," he said. "CMSA's greatest strength is our diversity. We are cisgender, transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, straight, white, black ( and ) Latin. We are multi-generational. We have members who played their first softball games in the late-'70s on one field at Clarendon Park and having invectives and slurs hurled at them by players from other leagues. We also have members who graduated college after gay marriage became a constitutional right in the U.S.
"CMSA is like a house built to serve a purpose 42 years ago. Over time the underlying structure has stayed strong. And yet, you occasionally need to assess if you are using all of the rooms correctly. Do we need a fresh coat of paint anywhere, maybe tear down a wall or two?
"Without a doubt we have to improve communication with our members and make all of them feel invested in the organization. For better or worse, email is no longer enough to get the word out."
Herek added, "Growth is good, but I think it is more important to first establish a strong identity that all of our members can rally around. If we become more inclusive and welcoming, the growth will follow. We will begin to grow once we decide on what our place is in the larger LGBT sports universe in Chicago. It's a different world than when we started. Who could've imagined in 1977 that, 40 years later, you would have a Chicago Gay Hockey Association … Stonewall Sports … The Smelts [and more].
"We will still be here ( for years to come ), doing what we do best: providing opportunities for athletes to compete in whatever the popular sports of the day are."
Herek said CMSA must provide more focus and resources to its list of women's sports, as some of those leagues have trailed off in recent years. Last year, for instance, there was no women's fall softball league. "If we are serious about inclusiveness and opportunities, it falls on the board of directors to identify the symptoms of these declines and to address them," he said.
Herek confirmed that conversations about sports to add are ongoing, "and we hope to have something exciting to announce about new additions for 2020 by mid-autumn," he said.
Right now there is enough demand for all sports, thus none will be dropped.
"We need to start shoulder-tapping the next generation of leaders now," Herek said. "I worry about 'brain-drain' as some of our more seasoned commissioners and board members look to end their service with no clear succession plan in mind. I hope I am the last president of CMSA who is older than CMSA. It is beyond time for new leaders at all levels of CMSA to step-up and take on this important work."
Herek in 2017 was elected to fill a vacancy on the CMSA board. He then was re-elected to a full two-year term on the board in 2018. "From the time of my first election until now I held the position of vice president with a focus on building our athletic programs and working closely with the Chicago Park District," he said.
Herek, in 2018, had one of his most memorable gay sporting moments — during the annual Pride Bowl, held every June.
"The Chicago Thunder needed about 14 things to go right in the last 8 minutes of a game to win. Somehow all 14 things went right. I don't think I've ever been, or will ever be, part of a game like that ever again. We were floating after that win," he said.
"Flag football has been the 'center of my CMSA' universe for a long time now. I was fortunate to play on teams with some really great captains when I came into the league, guys like John Ruhl who just had a way to make you feel incredibly welcomed and valued. It didn't take too long for me to go 'all-in' and start learning from Brian Kupersmit what it takes to build relationships and be a leader in a league by being his associate commissioner for three years. Then I was empowered by my peers as commissioner for four years. That time period included our transition to a team draft format that we felt would create a stronger community experience for the players."
Herek will continue to build, grow and expand local gay sports, not just flag football.