Soccer cleats and basketball sneaks: love knows no bounds

Two UMass Division I athletes break stereotypes
Daily Collegian (2023)
Daily Collegian (2023)
Shilpa Sweth

In front of an arena full of fans, there’s no better place to announce your new girlfriend.

At least, that’s what Lilly Ferguson thought.

Oct. 20, 2023, the night of Mullins Madness, an event where the University of Massachusetts Amherst men’s and women’s basketball teams were introduced to fans, with some fun games for the players and spectators to participate in.

As a member of the women’s team, Ferguson found herself at center court for most of the festivities, with a big supporter of hers in the stands watching on. Lauren Robles became a friend over the summer after grabbing lunch with some mutual friends, but the pair grew closer over time, ultimately entering a romantic relationship with each other.

Robles, a member of the women’s soccer team at UMass, joined a game of Simon Says during the event and made it to the final round where it was a one-on-one against Ferguson.

With the bright lights of the Mullins Center shining down, the pair stood right on top of the UMass logo at center court. Fans watching from the stands quieted down to find out why the two contestants had such big smiles on their faces.

Neither one knew that they’d make it to the final round, and they definitely weren’t expecting to be matched up against each other.

Ferguson was given the microphone where she announced, “That’s my girlfriend.” Those three words shocked Robles, who at the time, wasn’t expecting their relationship to be made public to that extent.

There was no talk ahead of time about the announcement being made, since the relationship wasn’t common knowledge to many people outside of the pair’s close friends at the time. With no planning on how the night would play out, even Ferguson was surprised with her confidence.

“There was nothing that I really wanted to hide,” Ferguson said. “I felt comfortable.”

The shock was followed by happiness that filled Robles, joyfully agreeing and proceeding on with the rest of the game with a huge smile.

As Division I athletes, there is more attention on the two of them than the average student, but ultimately putting this information out to the public was something that they both felt comfortable doing despite the chance of scrutiny.

“Our relationship is unconventional, some would say, but to us, it’s pretty normal,” Ferguson said.

A large source of that comfort came from the environment at UMass. The pair feel that they can be themselves at the school, based on the support they get from friends, coaches and the overall population of the town.

This came as a welcome change for Robles, who before making her way to Amherst, started her soccer career at Louisiana State University. She never felt that same comfort with the Tigers, eventually becoming one of the reasons leading to her decision to transfer.

There was a situation within her team at LSU, where two athletes began dating each other. Some coaches weren’t happy with the pair coming together, forcing them to hide their relationship at the time.

“[The coaches] weren’t going to put their foot down and be really harsh, but they did express distaste for [their relationship],” Robles said. “I’m sure it had more to do with team dynamics than it did with actual homosexuality, but that’s kind of a fine line to try.”

UMass became a welcome home for the pair, with initiatives supporting Black Lives Matter and Pride Month, but what’s truly been the best producer of security is the people at the university that they’ve met along the way.

Ferguson made great friends with her women’s basketball teammates, especially Stefanie Kulesza and Kristin Williams. Those two were there to support the new relationship from the get-go, with Kulesza even introducing Ferguson and Robles to each other.

To this day, the group still hangs out together and reminisces about the memories they made in the soccer girls’ old apartment. Whether it was playing Fortnite with everyone or talking and laughing for hours at a time, the apartment was truly the start of it all.

“I wouldn’t care if it was just us on the campus, because I know we would have a good time,” Ferguson said. “My freshman year, and that group of individuals, I’ll never forget.”

Robles grew to love the Amherst area as well, enjoying her time with the people, but also finding comfort in the surrounding towns and environment surrounding the campus.

Growing up in New Jersey, Robles admits that she is not used to how different it feels living in western Massachusetts, but loves the increase in queer acceptance and is confident in being herself and showing her true identity.

“It didn’t take a lot of time for me to figure out how queer-friendly Amherst is,” Robles said. “It didn’t take a lot of investigating to notice that this is a very accepting, open area … I think it was pretty easy to see that we were safe here.”

The pair became a source of motivation for younger generations, with both athletes having stories published in MassLive and The Massachusetts Daily Collegian with them supporting Title IX and queer representation in athletics.

They’ve used their platforms (each currently boasting over 2,000 Instagram followers) as student-athletes to promote being who you truly want to be. Ferguson knows that many people have a tough time feeling comfortable in their own skin and wants to be an example that it’s okay to show your true identity.

“It’s really important for me to be somebody who others can look up to, especially the younger generation,” Ferguson said. “Especially if they don’t have parents that support them, they often don’t have many people to look up to, and set that example for them, let them know that everything’s fine.”

Robles also knows her relationship can have an effect on people, choosing to focus on what she can control, and leading by example.

“I wish that I could say that I was more consciously aware of the platform that we have or the people that we might be influencing, but I can honestly say that I’m more wrapped up in finding my person, being happy and being good people,” Robles said. “I feel like when people watch that kind of authenticity, the ball starts rolling anyways, the effect is there, intentionally or not. We’re good to each other, and the public sees that.”

This mindset promotes same-sex relationships being normalized. The pair both agree that the two of them dating shouldn’t be seen as something different or unconventional, and that people should be free to be with whoever makes them happy.

“It’s not like we have a day dedicated towards heterosexual people,” Ferguson said.

When forming their relationship, the athletes felt safer in doing so due to the progress that has been made, especially towards female athletes in the past few years. This isn’t to say there isn’t a large amount of progress still to be made, but male athletes may feel less comfortable coming out in today’s world than their female counterparts.

With the culture surrounding men’s athletics, it can be a daunting task for players to admit to the public who they are. The toxicity creates a very different environment surrounding sexuality, as is shown by the extremely small amount of openly gay male athletes at any level.

“Dismantling the hyper-masculine culture of the men’s side of sports and refocusing the aspects of mental toughness and strength and toughness, in general, less as masculine traits and more as just human traits that we’re trying to embody, I think would be really helpful for that environment,” Robles said.

High-level athletes have the capability of shining light on these issues, using their platforms to stand up for what is right. Robles recalls looking up to USA women’s soccer player Megan Rapinoe as someone who truly took a stand for what she believed in, no matter the consequences.

“Despite all of the hate and kind of the downfall of her reputation, [Rapinoe] has never shut up, and she will never shut up … whether people like it or not,” Robles said. “That’s definitely pretty inspiring. It’s heartbreaking to see the public turn on her, but it is really inspiring to see her resilience in her activism.”

NFL player Trey McBride has been another advocate, in terms of introducing more people to the thought of “untraditional” relationships. The Arizona Cardinals tight end was raised by two moms and has proudly told his story to the world.

This comes as progress in the aforementioned dismantling of the hyper-masculine aspects of sports, especially on the male side of things in what is currently the most popular male sport in the U.S.

“There’s always going to be people that say hurtful things, say hateful things, but I think [McBride’s story] really helps move this movement in a positive direction, especially in a hyper-masculine sport like football,” Ferguson said.

These examples are a part of what inspired Robles to share her relationship with her family, even though there were a few members that didn’t jump right on board. As someone who identifies as bisexual, she has dated men in the past and is working through explaining her identity to her extended family members.

After coming out to her close family members years ago, and experiencing support, Robles feels more comfortable introducing more distant relatives to Ferguson. Some people she knows may not agree with her beliefs, but she doesn’t care what they think.

The environment she’s experienced at UMass has created confidence to the point that she has no fears. The more time passes, the more comfortable she feels, and the more she wants to include her girlfriend to her family.

Ferguson hasn’t had the same hesitation explaining to her family but has been supportive throughout the process and knows that all she can do is be herself. The couple grows through these moments, leaning on the support of each other to strengthen their confidence and love for each other.

Sports media also plays a factor in people like Ferguson and Robles being comfortable with who they are. Athletes can only do so much, but the couple is aware that the media outlets promoting content that can be helpful to people is the key for change down the road.

Education is the main key in Robles’ mind as to how the isolation of queer people can be diminished. Everyone has different upbringings and are exposed to different things as a child, but learning about the topic when people grow up is instrumental in the pursuit of positivity.

“In the classes I’ve taken at [UMass], I think professors don’t really shy away from that kind of critical theory of social justice,” Robles said. “… I think that probably created more socially aware and less hateful individuals. I think that education is really the bridge between that type of ignorance and hate, and where we are.”

The relationship they’ve built gained a lot of strength from the couple’s understanding of society as well as each other’s specific situation. Even with plenty of people in the world who may not be on their side, the duo knows that they’ll continue empowering the younger generations to come, with the love of one other at the forefront.

“It’s okay to have a girlfriend if you’re a girl and it’s okay to have a boyfriend if you’re a boy,” Ferguson said. “With us being on different teams and both being Division I athletes, we can almost band our communities together, the soccer community and basketball community. It’s important to be a role model and let people know it’s okay to be who you are.”

Mike Maynard can be reached at [email protected] and followed on X (formerly known as Twitter) @mikecmaynard.

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