Robbie Rogers returned to Elland Road yesterday as part of an anti-discrimination initiative. The warmth of his reception was one small step for a gay man, but a potentially giant leap for football, the sport in which he wishes to earn his living.
Rogers’s status as the most prominent footballer to profess his homosexuality invited examination of the culture which prompted him to remain in denial while he played for Leeds United, his hosts. There was no proselytising, merely an acceptance of common courtesy and shared humanity.
Maybe 2014 will be different. Maybe the dressing room’s last taboo will be exposed for its shallowness and irrelevance. Maybe fear will be neutralised and athletes will be free to be themselves. Maybe.
Regression and repression remain a global problem, an aberration logically beyond a reinvented midfield player for LA Galaxy. Homophobic legislation has been passed in India and Uganda this month. The sanctioning of same-sex marriage in Australia has been repealed.
Sport may not be a reliable barometer of social progress, but it has a unique opportunity to harness its irresistible symbolism and latent power. When the US president aligns sport and gay rights, to make a powerful political point to his Russian counterpart, the world is truly in motion.
Barack Obama amplified criticism of Vladimir Putin for passing national laws banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” by defying protocol and appointing three gay athletes as key members of the US delegation to February’s Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Billie Jean King, winner of 39 Grand Slam tennis titles, acknowledged her sexuality in 1981. Caitlin Cahow has been openly gay throughout her eight-year career as a world champion ice hockey player. Olympic figure-skating champion Brian Boitano came out on Thursday, immediately after his appointment.
Their presence in Russia will be immeasurably more important than the alternative, the blunt instrument of boycott, because they will set the narrative of the Games. King spoke of her hope that they “will be a watershed moment for the universal acceptance of all people”.
The campaign with which Rogers is associated, Beyond “it”, will seek to distribute an emblematic magnetic green bar designed to be worn by visitors to Sochi. A campaign for sexual orientation to be explicitly listed as a form of discrimination in the Olympic charter has fresh impetus.
The political ramifications must not be allowed to mask the deeply personal nature of the issue. Many gay athletes spend years prevaricating before they acknowledge their sexuality. The original lie mutates into a damning deceit, given additional toxicity by self-loathing.
We are all products of our environment. When sport is perceived to enshrine prejudice and intolerance, it exerts an insidious internal pressure. The prospect of rejection and isolation feels terrifyingly real. Depression strikes.
Nigel Owens, arguably the world’s best rugby referee, came out in 2007. Eleven years earlier, angry, confused and shameful, he attempted suicide at the summit of Bancyddraenen mountain in West Wales, overlooking his home village of Mynyddcerrig. He swallowed a bottle of sleeping tablets before being found by chance.
His deepest fear, of denunciation because he had somehow defiled the macho culture of a sport which he believed defined him, remains unrealised. Mutual misconceptions have been exposed by the warmth of unconditional acceptance.
Gareth Thomas, the former Wales and British Lions captain, experienced a similar sense of liberation when he came out in 2009. To declare an interest, we are collaborating on a book detailing his life and times. It has been a uniquely emotional process.
Truth is something to be embraced rather than shied away from, but its power must be respected. It is significant that no other footballer has even confided an interest in following Rogers’s lead. The game remains sport’s final frontier.
That is why Leeds United yesterday chalked up a home win before a ball was kicked.
Tawdry Korea choice by Rodman
This may be the season of Goodwill to all men, but for Dennis Rodman and his grubby retinue of opportunists we must make an exception.
Rodman, a caricature rebel defined by desperate exhibitionism and deepening insignificance, is in North Korea to promote the “Big Bang in Pyongyang”, a basketball match on January 8.
He is accompanied by a film crew and his six-figure sponsor, a bookmaking company whose spokesman admits “we are not in it for world peace.”
Rodman’s new best friend, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has guaranteed their safety following the recent execution, by machine gun, of the dictator’s uncle Jang Song-thaek.
The former Chicago Bulls player (below) has graciously promised each member of the local scratch team, who will face NBA veterans, two pairs of training shoes.
The temptation is to ignore such a tawdry circus in a pariah state in which two million people have died from starvation over two decades, but Shin Dong-hyuk begs our indulgence.
He survived 23 years in a prison camp, and challenges Rodman thus: “As you have a fun time with the dictator, please try to think about what he and his family have done and continue to do.”
Unlikely, but essential.
NO XMAS CHEER
Emmanuel Adebayor is a Christmas cracker joke made flesh: “What did the workshy multi-millionaire footballer say to his team-mates? ‘Show more heart’.” It’s not funny and, in truth, there is little to laugh about at Tottenham these days. The festive spirit is in understandably short supply down at White Hart Lane.
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