Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Sport's dirty little secret

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Peter Roebuck. Photo / Supplied
Peter Roebuck. Photo / Supplied

Peter Roebuck's sad death brings up the vexed subject of gays in men's sport - and the, at times, almost unbearable pressure they must be under.

You read that right - men's sport. For some unaccountable reason, gays in women's sport cause barely a ripple on the surface of our composure but male homosexuality still seems to be something held under a tight, suffocating hold - even in the world's premier locker rooms and changing sheds.

Roebuck's plunge from a hotel window after apparently being told he would face sexual assault charges on a 26-year-old Zimbabwean male student is sad enough on its own. Factor in the heavily closeted world of male sports stars and the pressure ramps up hugely.

Roebuck was the former Somerset cricket captain, England player and latterly Sydney Morning Herald cricket writer - and one of the most gifted in the world - who got into trouble in 2001 when he received a suspended jail sentence for common assault after beating three teenage cricketers across their bare buttocks with a cane.

The South African boys had been invited to stay at his former home in Taunton during coaching but were subjected to corporal punishment after which one of the boys said: "The problem was not so much that he caned us but wanted to examine the marks. That's when I decided to get out of his house."

I have to confess that, after the caning story, I (and probably many others) assumed Roebuck was gay. He never came out and, really, what did it matter? It didn't affect his cricket writing; he wasn't a sexuality-influenced scribe. He was just good at it; colourful and forceful in his Sunday Times and Sydney Morning Herald writings, even if I often didn't agree with him.

So why all the shame? Why should an incident-gone-wrong with a young man lead to Roebuck apparently pitching himself out of his hotel window to his death? Why is it so terrible for a cricket scribe to be outed in these liberal days? In women's sport, gays like Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King are accepted and even feted for their impact on their sport.

Entertainers, even those outed as humiliatingly as singer George Michael after being caught in cliched gay situations like a public toilet and cruising on Hampstead Heath, don't rush off and top themselves. Michael refused to be downcast or repentant, saying: "I don't want people to think my life is troubled when it's not. I'm a man who has been successful for 25 years. There can't be shame unless the people involved are ashamed and I'm certainly not that."

But it isn't so with most blokes and for that, we blokes must blame ourselves.

Somehow, almost incredibly, the threat of the homosexual lurking in the dressing room, intent on bending an unsuspecting straight to his evil whims, is still alive; driving transparency underground.

Like former NBA player John Amaechi who came out after his retirement, earning this broadside from fellow NBA star Tim Hardaway (ironic name, huh?): "First of all, I wouldn't want him on my team," Hardaway told a radio host in 2007. "I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."

Hardaway later apologised but Amaechi always said the sentiment remained among many elite athletes.

When Welsh and Lions rugby player Gareth Thomas came out in 2009, much British media comment was of the 'So what?' or 'We knew anyway' variety. If they knew anyway, where were the stories? Only if more gay players make themselves known will the taboo fade and the pressure lessen. A New Zealand Herald columnist (the Herald is a completely separate publication from the Herald on Sunday) said he wouldn't blame footballing gays for retiring before announcing their preferences.

"Thomas can't be serious in wanting us to believe that he never fancied any team-mates," the columnist wrote. It went against the law of averages to claim Thomas had never felt desire towards the hundreds of team-mates he'd taken the field with over the years.

So it's not just in the dressing rooms or the terraces; it's in the newsrooms as well.

Ian Roberts, was a tough-as-teak league player from Manly (ironic name, huh?) whose coming out in 1996 created a storm in the NRL. Roberts said: "I take offence at the old locker-room argument which assumes a man cannot, in any circumstances, control his urges. Any self-respecting human being can respect the rights and ways of another human being. The idea, then, that gays can convert, or even want, heterosexual guys is ludicrous."

In other words, some men fear other men for not being able to hold baser instincts at bay - which says a lot more about those doing the fearing than those in view.

Jason Akermanis, the AFL star pilloried after advising sports stars not to come out, wrote in a column: "Locker room nudity is an everyday part of our lives and unlike any other work place. I believe it would cause discomfort in that environment should someone declare himself gay. I have played with a gay player in Queensland in the mid-1990s who was happy to admit his sexual persuasion. He was a great guy who played his heart out and was respected by the team.

The only time I noticed a difference was when I was showering with 10 other players after a good win and I turned around to see all 10 heading out with their towels. Sure enough, our gay team-mate had wandered in. For some reason I felt uncomfortable, so I left. I am sure most players these days would do the same."

That is what Roebuck and gay male sportsmen seem to face: a jury of their peers brutal in their intensity, their judgement and their unity, refusing to admit that a difference can just be a difference and not a declaration of intent.

That is not to excuse Roebuck of any culpability if a sexual assault was involved. But while Roebuck may well have thrown himself out of that window, you get the feeling that it wasn't just his hand that lifted the window frame.

- Herald on Sunday

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