Gareth Thomas, the Rugby Union legend, has possibly taken the bravest step of his career. He has “come out” that he is gay. So what I hear people sigh!
This is a big issue for a number of reasons.
Firstly, Gareth is Wales most capped player, and perhaps more importantly he is still playing professional Rugby (for the Cardiff Blues). It is unprecedented for a Rugby Union star to come out whilst still a playing professional. For a player of Gareth’s stature to come out it is incredible. Players often shy away from this issue for fear of fans reactions, loss of sponsorship and lack of support from their clubs! For Gareth to face all this down and come out should be supported and acknowledged to be a truly brave act. How the public reacts is incredibly important as it will set a precedent for all other gay sport stars who are thinking about coming out (at the moment in Rugby Union there is an openly gay referee but no player that I am aware of).
Secondly, this is not just important for Rugby but sets a precedent for all other major sports. At the moment, out of the 500 professional footballers in the UK, there are no openly gay footballers. It is highly unlikely that this reflects the reality of footballer’s actual sexuality. Footballers are role models for millions of people around the world. To show that sexuality has nothing to do with your professional capabilities (or your ability to lead an ordinary life) would be incredibly positive. Whether we like it or not, footballers are elevated onto pedestals by fans. The only problem is they know more than anyone how easy it is to fall off that pedestal. Footballing history has not been kind to those who have not followed the script.
Justin Fashanu, the first million pound black footballer, came out and was hounded by fans and the public to such an extent that the coroner said it contributed to him committing suicide. We all remember the taunts that Grahame Le Saux received …all these chants seemed to be based on nothing other than the fact he read the Guardian and has a university education. Le Saux was married…but he did collect Antiques! Sadly, it was not just fans who taunted Le Saux, do you remember Robbie Fowlers taunts? http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/football/premier_league/article2419068.ece
Then there was the whole incident that involved heterosexual left back Ashley Cole. The News of the World, wrongly, accused a premiership footballer of taking part in a Gay orgy. This was not the interesting bit of the story. What was interesting for me was despite not being named in the story; Cole went to extraordinary lengths to dispute the accusations even taking the paper to court. Check out – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/article-378786/Cole-sue-gay-footballer-orgy-claims.html.
I have said before and I will say again. There is no social force in this world more powerful than football. If you want to change anything in this world, start with football. Sadly, for improving the lives of millions of people around the world affected by homophobia this looks like a slow process. The Football Association (FA) has introduced a ruling that puts homophobic chanting on a similar scale to racist chanting. There has been scattered reinforcement of this ruling (especially at the Seagulls ground who suffer disproportionate abuse). To say that the FA is a slow moving conservative body would be an understatement. This ruling however, at least sets a target to aim.
Hopefully, footballers will follow in Gareth’s brave example. Having openly gay footballers will be one of the biggest steps towards a more equal society that we could take. All secretly gay sports stars though will be looking on with great interest to see how fans, sponsors and club treat Gareth. Let’s hope it is with respect.