Saturday, 20 March 2010
Coming out in sport
Today witnessed the culmination of this year's Six Nations rugby tournament and the crowning of France as Grand Slam Champions. Overall victory to Les Bleus had already been assured before their last game but a narrow defeat of England assured the coveted clean sweep for the first time since 2004. Earlier in the day Wales ended their campaign on a high with a solid performance against bottom-placed Italy, and Scotland edged out Ireland in a tense encounter in the final game to be held at Croke Park. All constituted a great way to end another excellent and competitive competition.
Present at the game in Cardiff was former international Gareth Thomas, Wales' most capped player and one-time leading try scorer until current record holder Shane Williams surpassed his mark in 2008. Although Thomas has not officially retired from the national scene he now plays for rugby league outfit Crusaders and is unlikely to return to the Welsh set-up.
But Thomas' main impact on the sport - other than as a talented utility back complete with a distinctive celebration with each score - was last year's revelation that he is gay, making him the only man currently playing rugby to publicly announce his homosexuality.
Homosexuality and sport have not been easy companions; relatively few professional sportsmen and women have 'come out' and those that have done have cited immense pressure from both public and private quarters both before and after their announcement.
Football in England is a case in point; in the entire history of the professional game only one top-flight player has revealed himself to be gay. Justin Fashanu later committed suicide and at the subsequent inquest the coroner said that the prejudices he experienced were a contributory factor in his death. And even 'straight' players have been been the subject of homophobic taunts, most famously Graeme Le Saux and Sol Campbell; the former has said that he almost quit the sport because of the abuse.
The tabloid media has also not acquitted itself well in the campaign for equality of sexuality in sport; The Sun once described Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo as a 'nancy boy' - a slang term for a homosexual - and the News of the World found itself the subject of legal action after it made claims of a gay orgy involving players.
But perhaps it is the clubs themselves who must shoulder much of the blame. Peter Clayton, the chair of the FA's Homophobia in Football working group, has argued that clubs prevent players from coming out for fear of tarnishing or irrevocably damaging what is essentially a commercial commodity. And publicist Max Clifford claims that he has represented two high-profile gay Premiership footballers in the past five years and has had to advise them to stay in the closet because football "remains in the dark ages, steeped in homophobia."
This attitude can also be seen among players and managers; ex-Chelsea boss Luiz Felipe Scolari said during Brazil's successful 2002 World Cup campaign that he would omit any player who admitted to being gay. And England defender Rio Ferdinand accused Chris Moyles of being a 'faggot' after telephoning the Radio 1 DJ live on national radio. Former manager Alan Smith described his experience of the 'last taboo in football' in particularly scathing terms: "I've had players over the years who were single and read books and so others said they must be gay... You can get drunk and beat up your wife and that's quite acceptable, but if someone were to say 'I'm gay', it's considered awful. It's ridiculous."
Whilst most of the accusations of homophobia in British sport are aimed squarely at football Gareth Thomas' status as the only openly-gay professional rugby player is still a worrying indication that a level playing field is also absent from this version of the game. Sheer probability would suggest that many more sportsmen and women are gay, and even taking into account the plausible suggestion that many young homosexuals are dissuaded from taking up professional sport it would seem that many are compelled to keep their sexuality a secret.
The ultimate ambition for those seeking parity in sport is, of course, for a player's sexuality to have no relevance on either their popularity or their performance. Cynics might argue that the relative paucity of openly gay stars is testament to the reality of that goal - that there is no need to come out - but one suspects that those like Fashanu and Thomas and others at the centre of the homophobic storm in sport would almost certainly beg to differ. Being gay should mean as little to the supporters, the management and the clubs as being straight.