Brian Viner: How long will locker-room prejudice keep sport in an out-of-date closet?

It's easy to be sanctimonious about other people's sex lives
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The Independent Online

For the rest of us it is troubling that there should even be a closet in 21st-century Britain. I can understand why Mark Oaten might have thought it advisable to hide the fact that he had regularly paid for sex with a male prostitute, but the more dispiriting story is surely that of Simon Hughes, who saw fit to deny - in this publication, no less - that he was gay. As Matthew Norman pointed out in this newspaper yesterday, didn't his denial itself verge on homophobia by implicitly presenting homosexuality as something shameful, something likely to inhibit his political career? "My sexuality is none of your bloody business," is what he should have answered. But he didn't. He said no.

Still, it's easy to be sanctimonious about other people's sex lives, and in any case, gay or bisexual sportspeople make politicians look like paragons of candour.

Imagine if it had been not the Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes who had come out, but the former fast bowler and television cricketing analyst of the same name. In a way that would have been far more shocking. Not least because Simon Hughes of the cricketing ilk is entirely heterosexual, as far as I'm aware, but you know what I mean. Can anyone name an openly gay cricketer? An openly gay footballer? Boxer? Golfer? Athlete? They must exist in their dozens, if not hundreds, yet they choose to keep their sexuality under wraps. As, of course, they are perfectly entitled to do. It is indeed none of our bloody business. And yet, think what strides would be made against homophobia if some of the world's sporting giants would burst out of the closet in their spikes or studs.

We all know why they don't, especially those who've made their names in manly team sports. As my colleague Angus Fraser told me when I phoned to ask whether he could think of any gay cricketers, the dressing-room culture is quite ruthless enough without giving your team-mates the chance to rib you for your sexuality.

Not that I should think Ian Roberts got teased much. The Australian rugby league player - who played, by blissful chance, for Manley - was one of the toughest, most rugged competitors in perhaps the toughest, most rugged of sports. When he announced that he was gay in 1994, it was like Roy Keane or Martin Johnson coming out. But he played on - brilliantly - until 2000, and remains an iconic figure to many gay Australians.

In rugby, and to a lesser extent these days in cricket, at least there is not the unappealing prospect of a baying crowd making life a misery for an openly gay sportsman. It would be a different proposition at the nation's football grounds, where factual accuracy has never got in the way of a good taunt, off the field or on.

After all, Graeme Le Saux's orientation was questioned by the moronic Robbie Fowler apparently because he read The Guardian - an error of judgement, perhaps, but hardly a declaration of homosexuality. Yet why go to the trouble yourself of loading their slings, dipping their arrows in poison? That, at any rate, seems to be the prevailing view. Most people in football could name a rather decent gay XI, but the players themselves - maybe mindful of the fact that the only well-known footballer ever to come out, Justin Fashanu, suffered a lonely death by his own tormented hand - would doubtless rather admit to amphetamine abuse.

Meanwhile, even rumours can be destructive. At least two top players have felt the need to issue firm public denials that they are gay, and I know of another who gave an interview to a prominent football correspondent in which he said that he and a team-mate liked to fly to Iceland every now and then, just to pick up women.

The writer nobly elected to leave this detail out of his article, thinking it might land the player in trouble with his club. But on the day of publication he got a call from the player's agitated agent. Why had he left out the bit about chasing women? It had been deliberately planted to scotch the whispers that he fancied men.

Whether the player was gay or wasn't, it is sad that he should have tried to advertise his heterosexuality. Maybe gay sportspeople should take a good look at women's tennis; they will see that after a flurry of prurient excitement when Billie Jean King's lesbianism was revealed, the world didn't much care. These days, Martina Navratilova is an icon, and not only to the so-called homosexual "community", while one of the most popular players is the openly lesbian Amélie Mauresmo. Nobody at Wimbledon jeers her for being butch.

That said, it will be a brave footballer, or cricketer, or rugby player, who comes out first. One will, though, perhaps even propelled by his own judgement rather than the news desk of The Sun. And then a second will, and then a third. And over time it will cease to be an issue. It's a pretty immature society that makes an issue of it now.

Who I like this week...

Karren Brady, the 36-year-old managing director of Birmingham City FC, who is to undergo surgery on a brain aneurysm on Monday.

The reason I like Brady (below) has nothing to do with her illness, but it gives me a reason to say that I like her, and to wish her well.

She is tough, formidably bright, and has utterly confounded those who said that she would not last five minutes in and around all those stuffy club boardrooms filled with the stale smell of testosterone and cigars.

Moreover, when I interviewed her a few years ago, she took me on a tour of the stadium and then asked me if I wished to use the loo before my long drive home - a reminder that she is a mum as well as a high-powered executive.

Birmingham City need her back soon, and so does football.

...and who I don't

Vijay Singh, who blamed a taxi driver for his recent putting woes.

Apparently, Singh was sitting in a cab recently when the driver ventured the opinion that he tends to stand too close to the ball when he putts.

It's usually the customer who gives the tips in a taxi. Here was a rare example of a driver dishing out a tip to the customer, and Singh should have cherished it, if only as an example of spectacular chutzpah. But instead he has been moaning that he can't get it out of his head, and that it has done his putting no good at all.

Someone should find the driver and get him to write a book: "Improve Your Putting in One Quick Journey To The Airport."

It could sell millions.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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