Should gay sports stars come out of the closet?

Jessica Geen September 24, 2009
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Sport has been close to the top of the gay news agenda for several months, with the publication of Stonewall’s report of homphobia in football and a series of stories on the issue, including an exclusive interview with PR guru Max Clifford.

In this month’s Attitude magazine, which features rugby star Ben Cohen on the cover, lesbian BBC presenter Clare Balding and Welsh referee Nigel Owens give their opinions on coming out.

Owens, a rugby referee, attempted suicide in his early 20s because he felt so uncomfortable with his sexuality.

“I just didn’t want to be gay,” he said. “I was worried what people would think. When I woke up and saw my parents crying that really hit home. It was devastating. I felt I’d been given a second chance and it was time for me to wise up. I was so ashamed of what I’d done.”

His decision to come out only came after he started to be recognised in Wales as he became a higher profile referee and Welsh sports TV presenter.

“I was in McDonalds and a group of children asked for my autograph. I thought would they ask if they knew I was gay? I decided I had to be honest. Keeping it a secret was also affecting my refereeing and I wasn’t happy in my life. I felt I had to come out. Luckily, the reaction has been fantastic.”

Balding, who was successfully treated for thyroid cancer this year, added: “It will take brave individuals who are prepared to come out and some powerful legislators who are prepared to punish those who attempt to taunt them for it. The change in attitude will come from the top down – someone like David Beckham is clearly gay-friendly, could make a massive difference in the future.”

However, Clifford, who represents some of the most famous names in the world of celebrity, warned that homophobia in sports such as football was still prevalent enough to destroy careers.

Of those still in the closet, he said: “Coming out would end their career. It would be destructive to their popularity amongst fans, their success and their earning capacity. The last thing a manager wants is trouble from fans. No one wants to buy trouble and unfortunately that’s how it’s perceived at the current time.”

Clifford revealed to earlier this year that he represents a major footballer who is bisexual. However, he says he has advised the player to keep this secret as it will end his game. Referring to Justin Fashanu, he said: “The only player who ever came out eventually committed suicide.”

In contrast to Clifford’s thoughts, Cohen believes coming out could even enhance a player’s career.

He said: “I think if a footballer came out as gay, he would be unbelievably wealthy and unbelievably famous, all because he came out. I think a trend would follow. I think a lot of people in the closet would come out and support it. Sometimes you just need someone to start, it would be a snowball effect that would gain momentum. I think a lot people would say, well, we know that anyway.”

Attitude is on sale now.

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