Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

The gay issue: New poll highlights the problem in sport

Former NBA player Jason Collins became the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of four major North American pro sports leagues. Photo / Getty
Former NBA player Jason Collins became the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of four major North American pro sports leagues. Photo / Getty

It is four years since basketballer Jason Collins came out as the first openly gay player in America's four major professional sports.

That it took so long says something about what gay athletes face, or fear they will face. For all of the support and praise a player like Collins will receive, there remains those loud and anonymous voices in the crowd to deal with.

Support for Collins was significant however. Superstar basketballer Kobe Bryant was among those in praise.

"One person coming out is showing this type of courage that gives others that same type of courage...it's dealing with a lot of issues for kids who are afraid to be themselves because of the peer pressure that comes with it," Bryant said.

It's hard to know if the latest survey of British football fans represents progress or not.

An online poll of 4000 people across England, Wales and Scotland conducted on behalf of BBC Radio 5 revealed 82 per cent of sports fans would welcome an openly gay player at their club. But, and this is a big but, eight percent of football fans and seven per cent of all fans said they would stop watching their team altogether.

While some headlines said the number was "only" eight per cent, that is a sadly high homophobic reaction in this day and age.

And the Football Association chairman Greg Clarke has been criticised for his neutral reaction. Clarke was probably trying to be sympathetic when he said an openly gay Premier League player would receive "significant abuse" from supporters, making him reluctant to advise a player to come out while homophobic abuse still existed.

Homophobia remains significant, the conundrum obvious. Half of those in the BBC survey had heard homophobic abuse at sports events, yet 61 percent believed gay players should face up to this and come out to help change the situation.

It's an issue that is still a long way from being resolved, but at least it is drawing significant attention. Collins was a journeyman NBA player but his coming out story in Sports Illustrated drew a record audience to the magazine's website. And Collins, who retired less than two years later, found it a positive experience.

"It feels wonderful to have been part of these milestones for sports and for gay rights, and to have been embraced by the public, the coaches, the players, the league and history," he wrote.

But Collins had the spotlight on his side, and powerful allies such as his former team mate and coach Jason Kidd who said: "Jason's sexuality doesn't change the fact that he is a great friend and was a great teammate."

It may actually be a lot tougher for gay athletes in lower level sport.

A just-released Otago University report stated our national sporting bodies should adopt a zero tolerance policy for discriminatory behaviour.

Sports management researcher Dr Sally Shaw found that "young lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) athletes are far more likely to stay in the closet because of fear of bullying and discrimination than older athletes."

Research from last year showed 81 per cent of New Zealand's gay sportsmen and 74 per cent of lesbian sportswomen under 22 were partially or totally in the closet with their team-mates.

And the first international study on homophobia in sport, initiated by gay rugby players in Sydney, highlighted statistics showing 77 per cent of New Zealanders believed an openly gay person would not be very safe as a sporting spectator. A similar number had experienced or witnessed homophobia in sport.

The report's suggested actions included supporting gay team mates, coaches making it clear that gay athletes are welcome, and ending homophobic humour and slurs. In many ways, the solutions are obvious. But in the real world, the obstacles are - unfortunately - still often greater.

When results of the BBC poll were released, former player turned commentator Chris Sutton described the eight percent as "cavemen".

"This 8 percent shouldn't be allowed in grounds. By not taking it on, they are the winners in all of this. Greg Clarke should be taking these people on," he said.

This sounds great. But how exactly do you find this eight per cent, or deal with all the situations that occur outside famous stadiums.

On an encouraging note, some top level sport is trying to lead the way.

In New Zealand, Super Rugby players wore multi-coloured laces in support of diversity this year. The Gay Express was certainly encouraged, noting that New Zealand Rugby general manager Neil Sorensen said that "wearing bright laces or any bright colours are an easy way for people to support the idea that regardless of shape or size, background or beliefs, rugby is a game for everyone."

In England, Wakefield's openly gay league forward Keegan Hirst has received strong support and his previous club Batley banned a supporter from their stadium for sending homophobic tweets.

"Since Keegan publicly confirmed his sexual orientation we have been delighted by the response and support he has been given by everybody at the club and indeed throughout our sport," Batley said.

"There is no place for homophobic abuse or indeed any abuse and we wish to send out a clear message that if you engage in such behaviour we do not want you to attend our stadium."

The numbers tell a story though. Openly gay high profile sports people such as the former league star Ian Roberts and Welsh rugby union player Gareth Thomas remain few and far between. And it is a long way from the day when gay athletes' sexuality will need no mention at all.

- NZ Herald

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