Sunday 21 January 2018

Vincent Hogan: Depressing that players still feel the need to run from clowns

Fact that Hitzlsperger delayed 'coming out' shows football remains rooted in dark ages

Former Premier League player Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed this week he is gay
Former Premier League player Thomas Hitzlsperger revealed this week he is gay
Former Cork goalkeeper Dónal Óg Cusack
Brian O'Driscoll: 35 today
Henry Shefflin: 35 today

Do you remember that clown with the megaphone in Thurles, standing behind Donal Og Cusack's goal, spewing putrid, homophobic bile?

It was May of '09, Tipp hurlers against Cork. Diarmuid O'Sullivan drew a garda's attention to the hate-filled voice on the terrace, yet nobody appeared too energised to go looking. In terms of a grubby, national snapshot, this one was pretty dispiriting.

But worse, surely, had been the ease with which this caveman and his tiny cadre of accomplices could find cover in the throng. What did the broader silence signify? Ambivalence? Acceptance? Some kind of craven weakness?

Did nobody have the moral gumption to shout stop? A few months later, Cusack became the first high-profile Irish sportsperson to come out as gay when his autobiography 'Come What May' was published to general acclaim. The book seemed to represent some kind of psychological watershed as, that December, Welsh rugby international Gareth Thomas followed Cusack's lead.

In other words, two men playing profoundly tough, macho sports, chose to trust that society's response would, by and large, be respectful and intelligent.

They were proved right too, the vast, vast majority of hurling and rugby people choosing to applaud and recognise the courage it took for Cusack and Thomas to challenge prejudice whilst still playing sport at the highest level possible.

When his book hit the streets, Donal Og was adamant about one thing. The importance of 'Come What May' was that he 'came out' as a player, not an ex-player. The easy thing, he reckoned, would have been to delay publication until his retirement. To, as he said, "write it and walk away."

All of which makes me wonder if he felt much empathy for the Thomas Hitzlsperger story this week.

Hitzlsperger is being widely lauded as "the first Premier League player to reveal that he is gay," even though -- of course -- he is no longer a Premier League player, indeed no longer even a current professional footballer.

So, if anything, there was something mildly depressing about the story, given its tacit acceptance that the German could not sensibly have 'come out' were he still playing.

The fundamental of what Hitzlsperger said is that football isn't ready. It isn't sufficiently in tune with civilised society to trust itself with an openly gay footballer exposed to the routinely irrational heat generated by a big football crowd.

"It will happen one day," said Thomas, scarcely a warming prophesy, coming as it did, 16 years after Justin Fashanu took his own life.

Sport can still feel rooted to the dark ages when you explore this kind of reality. For all the glories, it remains a repository of great ugliness and ignorance too.

If Hitzlsperger undoubtedly deserved credit for the courage of this week's revelations, his inadvertent message to professional footballers was the wisdom of continued silence. There are, we can assume, many multiples of gay footballers playing across Europe's big leagues, but they must -- it seems -- remain a secret.

Why?

Small minds surely only prosper when the great majority bite their tongues. Depressingly, that's what happened in Thurles five years ago, yet Cusack simply refused to accept that silence as a voice.

Bear in mind that he was 16 by the time homosexuality was decriminalised in this country; that he grew up in a place of hurling pilgrimage, in other words a village consumed by the heroism of what we blithely term "men's men" and, of course, one in particular.

Nothing about Donal Og Cusack's daily life suggested that 'coming out' would be easy or, come to think of it, wise. But he did it and birds didn't suddenly come toppling from the sky onto the graves of old, departed gaels. He did it and, somehow, the mobs' voices weren't raised. If anything, they were decommissioned.

So, good luck to Thomas Hitzlsperger and good luck to the football men who gathered in great numbers this week to applaud his revelation. But the game needs to stop congratulating itself on what it seems to regard as a week of progress. As Hitzlsperger himself put it: "Homosexuality is simply ignored in football."

It is, in other words, still running from the clowns.

Birthday of two icons should be a holiday

You  can take all your 'Random acts of kindness days,' your 'Run up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes days' and shove them in a (non-recycling) bin as far as this column is concerned.

But today, January 11, should be a national holiday. It marks the 35th birthday of both Brian O'Driscoll and Henry Shefflin, two men who have contributed far more to the State than could ever be regarded as a patriotic duty.

Time vanishes from our lives when either one soars in battle, but the privilege of seeing that happen will soon pass into history. So any takers out there to start a campaign?

If we can set aside a day to celebrate the consumption of stout, is sporting genius not worth at least equal recognition?

Irish Independent

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