Gay-friendly British rugby star Ben Cohen has called on sporting authorities to do more to tackle homophobia.
He was speaking at a debate at Britain’s National Student Pride today (2 March).
The panel session on homophobia in sport also featured former Premiership footballer Graeme Le Saux who explained how he became the victim of homophobia in soccer, despite being straight.
Cohen is a British former rugby star who now has his own brand of underwear and campaigns to beat homophobic bullying.
Most panelists felt sponsorship wasn’t the barrier to top-tier sportspeople coming out as LGBT.
Openly gay former NBA basketball star John Amaechi said the vast majority in sport get little or no income from sponsors anyway.
Soccer hero Le Saux talked about the time he was at the end of anti-gay abuse on the pitch while playing for Chelsea against Liverpool.
He said: ‘I came from a very different background, I had a decent education and I was very confident with who I was [and] rumors were spread by my own teammates I was gay. That was a direct threat to me and in the context of football was something I couldn’t talk about.
‘A very good player, Robbie Fowler fouled me, got booked and then turned around and telling me to give him one up the arse. The referee came back down the pitch and booked me for time wasting.
‘I have a huge admiration for Fowler as a football player but even behind closed doors he never apologized. Kevin Keegan, the England manager, wanted us to do a photo shoot with me shaking his [Fowler’s] hand. And I said “fine, if he apologizes to me I will do that” and he never did.’
Le Saux felt the Football Association (FA) might deal with things better now and was getting better at tackling homophobia. However, their failure of the FA to do more before was widely criticized by the panel.
He said: ‘The Football Association themselves have had to learn this issue is not going to go away. I know they are serious and they are moving. This area that has been very distasteful is finally being dealt with.’
He added: ‘I don’t think now players would be particularly surprised if one of their teammates was gay. I think part of the problem is the crowd because football is so tribal. Any weakness or perceived weakness is picked on.
‘It is very vocal. And it is how the authorities or clubs deal with that. If there is a mass of people singing that sort of abuse, what do they do about it. The first step is for people to report it. And then the FA can back that up with sanctions and bans and fines.’
Amaechi revealed there were always gay people in basketball but they weren’t open.
He said: ‘In the NBA there were plenty of people who you would hear people talking about because they turned up with their manager to every game and their manager drove them home to the house where their manager also lived.
‘You just can’t spend so much time with people without knowing about them.
‘Sports has become the last bastion, the last place where straight men can express their emotions. They can talk about loving their teammates. So there is a resistance there, they don’t want actual gay people in the scene when they are doing stuff which is pretty close to being gay.
‘If you put groups of men together in sports, or in the military, they have a collective set of expectations of how they are supposed to behave, how they are supposed to treat women or see intellectual pursuits. It doesn’t have to be that way.’
Cohen criticized those at the top of British soccer for not doing more to tackle the issue head-on.
He said: ‘There are plenty of other sports who don’t have this problem. [In football] people in the Premiership don’t treat their fellow players with respect. There is no respect for the referee. He doesn’t have any power on the pitch. You have to talk to the top of the game to get that sorted out and then feed that through to the grassroots level.’
And Amaechi said people were in danger of letting off the authorities, coaches, referees, managers and others too lightly by saying the problem is too hard to handle.
He asked: ‘What a referee knows what to do when someone calls someone a nigger but not a faggot? Really? The idea that we can’t incorporate this, that it’s some kind of major step, is nonsense.
‘It is the way you make the participants feel that makes them come back. Nobody will take part in something that forces you to put away who you are. Most of the coaches out there are underprepared or unwilling to realize that is there job, not to have a little plastic trophy.
‘There are people with great power in sports who are abusing that power at the moment. Whilst I wait for them to die, we do need some fresh blood, but the trajectory is right, because they have been forced to change.’
And Cohen also thought sport was starting to change for the better.
‘In 10 years time we are well on the way to being judged on your talent, not on your sexuality. So it will be better for the next generation,’ he said.
But Delia Johnston, who campaigns against transphobia in sport, highlighted the huge barriers to participation that existed for trans sports people, including at the Olympics.
She said: ‘There is a strict rule that effectively says you have to be post surgery by at least two years, plus the years before means it will take five years so you will be past your prime by the time you can take part.
‘There is a group just staring now called TAGS, Trans Action Group for Sport. One of the people in her former gender has a double gold medal but in her new gender she can’t take part.’
The panel debate at Student Pride in Brighton, on the south coast of England, was hosted by Evan Davies, a BBC presenter for Radio 4’s Today program and for entrepreneur funding TV talent show Dragons’ Den.
It was partly organized by gay-friendly soccer team, The London Titans.
Student Pride attracted students from all over the UK for the event which will culminate in a club night including lesbian X Factor pop star Lucy Spraggan tonight.
It is supported by Gay Star News.
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story contained an allegation by Ben Cohen about Reebok. He has now contacted GSN to apologize and asked to withdraw that remark saying he was mistaken and his earlier claim was untrue. GSN published his previous comment in good faith as it was said in a public meeting but would like to apologize.