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Eamonn Sweeney: Be proud of our open minds

A few decades back, when there was a war in the North, citizens suspected of subversive tendencies would occasionally be brought into cop shops down here for a spot of interrogation. When they turned up in court with bruised bodies, busted lips and broken teeth, the Gardaí would explain that the defendants had somehow inflicted the injuries upon themselves.

I used to find this explanation somewhat unconvincing. But who knows? Because in the past few years we've proved to be world class at beating ourselves up. Whether it's the state of the economy, the abortion debate or the fact that our football supporters downed a few pints in Poland, a collective wail of Nostra Maxima Culpa has echoed through the land.

Where else would this happen only Ireland? We're the laughing stock of Europe. If this happened in any other country, there'd be war. We're backward. We're a disgrace. And so on. At times it seems like we can't find enough bad things to say about ourselves.

But maybe we're a bit hard on ourselves. And maybe there are times when we compare pretty well to the rest of the world. For example, when it comes to dealing with homosexuality in sport. For years the major professional leagues of the world have agonised over the possibility of one of their players coming out as gay. There was general agreement that this would be an epochal moment yet it remained somehow unthinkable. How could the players and fans be expected to cope with something of such earth-shattering magnitude?

Well, your Premier League, your NFL and your NBA were a bit behind the times on this matter. Because back in October 2009 Dónal óg Cusack of the Cork hurlers came out as a gay man. And you know what? The sky did not fall. His team-mates did not disown him. The fans did not turn away from him. Cusack simply made his announcement and continued his career.

Maybe there were a few assholes who fumed on the terraces but the overall reaction to Dónal óg's coming out was overwhelmingly positive. He was admired for his courage and honesty and dignity, people paid tribute to him and no one considered him to be in any way diminished as a member of the GAA family.

Snide comments and expressions of moral outrage were conspicuous by their absence in October 2009. And while most of the credit should go to Cusack himself, the reaction was a credit to the cop on and tolerant spirit of GAA fans, a group of people sometimes derided as backwoodsmen by those enlightened souls who think that Ireland would be a better place if it wasn't quite so, well, Irish.

In fact, it's sometimes suggested that we should take a leaf from the book of more 'advanced' countries. Countries like, for example, the USA.

Last week, basketball star Jason Collins of the Cleveland Cavaliers became the first sportsman in one of America's major professional leagues to come out as gay. And how did the Americans react? Well, the announcement was covered on ESPN's Outside The Lines, a show widely regarded as a thinking man's sports programme, where reporter Chris Broussard said that Collins, "is walking in open rebellion to God and Jesus Christ . . . if you live that kind of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, that's a sin."

Now imagine the lads on The Sunday Game discussing Dónal óg Cusack's coming out. And suppose, someone said, "You know Des, I think Dónal óg is walking in open rebellion to God and Jesus Christ." What would you think?

Things are different Stateside. Broussard claims that, "I've had several NBA players and coaches and management call me in support . I've had several big-name pastors call me or tweet in support of me . . . I believe God is getting all the glory from this and I've been leaning on the scriptures, 'blessed are you that you are persecuted for righteousness' sake'." He's also suggested that Collins and his fellow homosexuals can be cured of their condition if they pray hard enough.

In fairness, a large number of people, including President Obama and NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, have praised Collins. But Broussard also has his supporters, among them Bubba Watson who tweeted, "Thanks Chris Broussard for sharing your faith and the bible. #God Is Good." Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace had a cut at Collins on Twitter while Atlanta Falcons corner-back Asante Samuel said that gay sportsmen "don't have to show it and flaunt it like that . . . we have kids out here too". Seriously, can you imagine Pádraig Harrington or Rory McIlroy coming out with something like that?

Now you could argue that this type of reaction doesn't matter very much, perhaps on the grounds that we're all going to die someday and one time men had to go down mines. Oh hang on, that's just nuts.

The fact is that homophobia is a big problem in society. Gay people are injured and sometimes killed by queer bashers, their lives are made miserable by homophobic bullying which can drive them to suicide. A study carried out by Dublin City University in 2006 showed that homophobic bullying goes on in 79 per cent of Irish secondary schools. And one carried out by the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network said that 40 per cent of gay students had been threatened because of their sexuality. This is not harmless stuff.

What has it do with sport? Well, for one thing this is obviously a male problem. In all the fuss over Jason Collins, it was hardly mentioned that Martina Navratilova came out as far back as 1981 and that many other female sports stars have done likewise in the years since. There's been no great controversy because straight women don't seem to feel threatened by lesbians.

It's different for young men and there is a tendency to see sport as one of the last redoubts of unreconstructed masculinity, a place where all kinds of macho nonsense which would be laughed at elsewhere is respected. That's why Dónal óg Cusack is such an important figure. He showed young men who play football and hurling that the gay man wasn't some mysterious other, he could be a guy who played on the team with them, someone they cheered for and admired. And I'd say he has done more to combat homophobia than many a well-meaning government initiative.

I'd also suspect that Cusack's coming out may have encouraged

former Welsh rugby international Gareth Thomas to do likewise shortly afterwards. The Welsh, too, took

that in their stride with ne'er a word about open rebellion to God. Jason Collins can be a similar role model but he'll have to overcome a level of bigotry which neither Cusack nor Thomas seemed to encounter.

There are those who will defend the likes of Broussard and Watson on the grounds that they're 'expressing their sincerely held beliefs as Christians'. But this is nonsense. Look at the most high-profile Christian athlete in these islands, Katie Taylor. I don't think anyone doubts the part that religion plays in Katie Taylor's life, the sincerity of her beliefs or the strength she draws from them. And back in 2010 she told Hot Press, "There are a lot of gay people involved in women's sport. Not just in boxing but in all kinds of sport – I have friends who are gay and I love them to pieces. We are who we are at the end of the day."

This seems a far more Christian attitude than the one being exhibited by the ludicrous Chris Broussard. And it strikes me that in a contest of manliness between the courageous Jason Collins and the big simpering sobbing ball of self-love which is Bubba Watson, there would be only one winner.

This may be a tough time for Collins. But if he wants encouragement, he should put in a call to Cloyne. Because Dónal óg Cusack didn't just come out in October 2009, he went on to become one of the most impressive men in Irish sport, if not society. I don't think there was a better, funnier or more historically aware speech last year by an Irish public figure than the one he gave at the Foyle Pride event in Derry in August.

And if Broussard and Watson are so keen on the bible, perhaps they should take a look at Matthew 7:1-3. "Judge not, that ye not be judged. For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye."

Amen to that.


Irish Independent