Helping sport out of the closet


Kevin Beirne examines the lack of prominent gay sports icons

It is an old joke about physical sports that there is a homoerotic undercurrent to them. Many a not-so-keen viewer has claimed that the over-hyped masculinity of sports such as rugby and wrestling is purely due to an ignored desire amongst its competitors to experience something more sexual with their opponent.

As far as this ‘theory’ goes, it’s little more than a throwaway line recycled by people who want to get a rise out of their friends. But why does it get a rise out of most sports fans? Why do sports fans get so touchy when the sexuality of anyone in their sport is questioned?

Maybe it is because of the perception of homosexual people in society. If you were to make the same accusations against a female sports team, you would most likely get a very different reaction. In sports, masculinity is demanded, and being attracted to men is seen as the least manly thing someone can do.

Back in 1990, Justin Fashanu became the first English footballer to openly come out as gay. This was an incredibly brave decision for the first black footballer to ever command a £1 million transfer fee. He was publicly disowned by his brother John, himself a former footballer.

In the 23 years since, no other professional footballer in England has had to courage to come out of the closet. His career had been on the decline for some time before his confession, and never recovered after it. In May 1998, Justin Fashanu was found hanged in a deserted garage, amid allegations of sexual assault, which, it was later revealed, had been dropped.

So far, Fashanu remains the only globally recognised footballer to come out during his career, with Olivier Royeur coming out at the age of 54, while former-US footballer Robbie Rogers came out at the same time he retired.

Ex-rugby international Gareth Thomas is perhaps the most successful sports person to come out as gay. The former Welsh rugby player amassed an astonishing 100 caps for his country in rugby union, four caps in rugby league and even appeared three times for the British and Irish Lions. At one point, he was the most-capped player in Welsh history, and captained the team to their first Grand Slam in 27 years.

Unlike Fashanu, Thomas has gained huge amounts of public support from all corners. Perhaps it is because he had made a name for himself in a sport like rugby. He has proven time and time again that he could stand toe-to-toe with any challenger. He never once backed down.

Another factor in Thomas’ public support could well be the timing; coming out of the closet in 2009 was a very different proposition to doing the same thing in 1990. Public perception has changed greatly over the last twenty or so years, but yet athletes are still so reluctant to identify themselves as gay.

Looking at the statistics for the population as a whole, where it is often said that one out of every ten people is gay, it is hard to believe that there aren’t more gay sportsmen who have yet to identify themselves, for fear of what it might do to their career.

Basically, there is a fear that exists in our society about coming out of the closet that is multiplied greatly for professional athletes for a number of reasons; the macho-nature of sports discourages any players from coming out of the closet, as does the public scrutiny that comes with a high-profile professional career.

You need not look any further than our own shores for an example of an openly-gay male athlete competing at the highest level. In 2009, Cork goalkeeper Dónal Óg Cusack announced that he was gay in his autobiography, titled Come What May.

The three-time All-Ireland winner and two-time All Star said that the support of his teammates was what helped him finally come out to the public, although he claims that he never really struggled with the idea himself.

Having only a handful of gay athletes to choose from as inspiration for the young gay athletes in Ireland is still better than what is on offer across the Atlantic. Of the major American sports, there is yet to be one current athlete to come out of the closet.

Even though there are no athletes out yet, there is definitely a feeling that gay athletes are present. During this year’s NFL Combine, where NFL teams get a look at some of the country’s best college players, one player claimed he was asked about his sexuality by two different teams.

Whether or not this is true, the fact that it is being widely reported in the media shows that others are wondering the same thing. Many have been quick to criticise the teams who are asking these questions, but there is some logic to it.

An optimist might say that the team are looking to offer support to any young, gay athletes, while the pessimist in most of us suspects that few teams want to risk upsetting the current players by introducing a gay player to the fold.

You never know, there might already be a player out there for your favourite team who is carrying more than just the pressure of the game on his shoulders. We can only hope that there is a positive environment for them, should they choose to come out.