Friday 19 December 2014

Brave players should be commended for coming out despite hostile fans

Published 11/01/2014 | 17:00

Thomas Hitzlsperger
Thomas Hitzlsperger

There has been a growing silence when it comes to other gay Irish sportspeople coming out.

Have you seen 'All Is Lost'? Robert Redford's film about being stranded alone at sea in a stricken yacht makes you constantly ask the question: what would you do? Would you be as calm as Redford? How would you handle the loneliness and fear? Would your survival instincts kick in?

This week we got an insight into the isolation and fear of a gay professional footballer. Former Premier League player Thomas Hitzlsperger (below) became the most high profile footballer to announce he's gay. How did he deal with it during his playing days? He hid it. Four months after retiring, the 31-year-old German revealed his true sexuality. He said "people see a gay footballer as a contradiction in terms. And that is why virtually no professional player wants to expose himself to this kind of pressure".

While Hitzlsperger pushed out the boundaries, another footballer tried to reign them back in. In a documentary about religion in football which was aired this week on French TV, former Chelsea player Alex was quoted as saying that "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Yves". His spin on the ugly anti-gay "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" line was not lost in translation.

Like most people, I look forward to the day when the sexuality of a former footballer is not worldwide news. Or when a male Olympic diver doesn't feel he has to post a video online to announce he's dating a man. But because of the lack of 'visible' gay sportspeople, especially in team sports, what Hitzlsperger did needs to be lauded and applauded. He wanted to "further the debate about homosexuality among sports professionals".

So let's try and further the debate -- what is it like in Ireland? Are women streets ahead in being more open about homosexuality? One (straight) former female footballer I spoke to said being gay was openly accepted in dressing-rooms: "Players who are gay would not hide their sexuality. Everyone knew who was straight and who was gay."

So is it easier because sportswomen are not under the same scrutiny as their male counterparts? Or, as England women's captain Casey Stone -- who's openly gay -- wondered, is it because women's football is possibly "more grown-up"?

Stephen McGuinness, General Secretary of the Professional Footballers Association of Ireland (PFAI), said no player has ever approached them for help in 'coming out'. Irrespective of that, the PFAI want to be proactive. They're looking at creating guidelines because, as McGuinness said, "they want to make the process of coming out as easy and stress free as possible if that's what a gay player wishes to do".

It's just over four years since former Cork goalkeeper Donal Og Cusack revolutionised our societal attitude when he revealed he was gay. Following Cusack's brave actions, did we expect a domino effect? There has been a growing silence when it comes to any other high-profile gay Irish sportspeople coming out.

Omar Hassanein, CEO of the Irish Rugby Union Players Association, said statistically it would make sense that there are a few gay players in rugby. So does the uber-macho image of rugby make it more difficult? "It is possible that this culture could intimidate a player from coming out," Hassanein said.

"I do however think that rugby also has a very compassionate culture which might come as a surprise to some."

One former Ireland rugby player said he didn't know of any gay team-mates while he was playing. But in retirement, he found out that a few were homosexual.

"Would we have taken the piss out of a gay player? Of course we would have. But it would have been no different to anyone else. Rugby is all about acceptance and trust."

So while the major player unions here are ready to help -- both the GPA and IRUPA have confidential helplines -- what about dealing with the uncontrollables? Like abuse from fans?

On Newstalk this week, rugby referee Nigel Owens, who is gay, said for some reason sport gives an unwritten licence to shout from the terraces abuse that would be not be acceptable elsewhere. This is an issue associations have got to police.

Owens advised that gay sportspeople should come out when they feel the time is right. Unlike Redford in his latest movie, this isn't a solo journey. And despite any fears -- all is never lost.

SINEAD KISSANE IS A SPORTS PRESENTER AND REPORTER AT TV3

Irish Independent

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