Discrimination in Sport

"In many ways it is barbaric, and I could never have come out without first establishing myself and earning respect as a player. Rugby was my passion, my whole life, and I wasn’t prepared to risk losing everything I loved."

In December 2009 Gareth Thomas, Wales’s most-capped Rugby player became the first leading British sportsman to reveal that he is gay. Thomas knew he was gay from the age of 16 or 17 but could never accept it because he knew he "would never be accepted as a gay man and still achieve what [he] wanted to achieve in the game."

Thomas’ revelation may have made the headlines but in the Rugby world this has hardly been front page news. Thomas attracted no adverse fan reaction when he took to the field for Cardiff against Toulouse - his first match since coming out. David Young, Cardiff’s director of Rugby stated: "The story has made no impact".

Both reactions will have pleased Thomas. It was not until 1999 that the dismissal of an individual on the grounds of homosexuality was outlawed (Lustig-Prean & Beckett v UK and Smith & Grady v UK) and The Welshman had reached 30 before homosexual discrimination was made unlawful.

In the case of Saunders v Scottish National Camps Association (1981) it was considered that it may be within the range of reasonable responses for sports clubs to dismiss gay players on the basis that they may cause tensions in the dressing room and attract hostility from fans.

Thomas has received nothing but praise in the Rugby world – fans do not care about his sexuality, and applaud him for coming out.

Football is someway behind. In January 2009 11 Tottenham supporters appeared at Portsmouth Magistrates' Court charged with indecent or racist chanting – restricted by the Football Offences Act 1991 after a Portsmouth player was bombarded with homophobic and racist abuse.

Superintendent Neil Sherrington, of Hampshire Police, said: "After listening to our recordings it is clear there was a level of homophobic abuse."

"I would regard this abuse as intolerable in any forum or venue - the excuse that it was at a football match is not a valid one."

Discrimination in football is not resigned to the terraces. In an age where many black sportsmen are at the top of the game - The William's Sisters and Tiger Woods have dominated there respective sports yet there is a distinct lack of black managers in English football.

The ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football' campaign was established in 1997 - more than 10 years before the same charity published a report calling for football to take a more decisive action on homophobic abuse.

PR supremo Max Clifford has claimed that he advised two high profile British footballers not to follow Thomas' lead - if the issue of homophobic abuse is 10 years behind that of racist abuse this is hardly surprising.

Published April 20, 2010

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