Joe Root: By following his instinct to call out homophobic abuse, the England captain demonstrated the true power of the individual voice

Too often homophobia is allowed to live and breathe within sport, but the England cricket captain has proven a beacon of hope that can inspire others to follow suit

Ed Malyon
Sports Editor
Tuesday 12 February 2019 14:34
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Jonathan Liew wraps up England's 2-1 series defeat in the West Indies

Homophobia, as with most prejudices, lingers around sport in a way that many people still deny.

It is in the interests of the authorities, it would seem, to try and play down the unsavoury incidents that take away from their sport/source of revenue* (delete as applicable) in order to minimise damage to their image, and this is why you get Fifa announcing in 2016 that they’re disbanding their anti-racism task force because, to paraphrase very roughly, the lads had got the job done.

Given the amount of racist incidents in English football (just one country!) over the last month (just one month!) it would surprise nobody to hear that Fifa might have jumped the gun a little on that one. They are no strangers to dealing with homophobia either, and while they’re fast to act, the impact of their actions appears to be fairly limited as a solution or deterrent.

During the qualification period for last summer’s World Cup in Russia (just a couple of years!) Fifa punished international football associations for 51 separate homophobic offences. 11 of those went to Mexico, whose fans steadfastly refuse to relent in their usage of puto (a derogatory term for a male prostitute, in this instance) as an insult to opposition players. They were even fined during the last World Cup, global football’s biggest stage, for the repeated use of the insult - even if that fine was a paltry £7,615. Their federation would almost make that money back in the time it takes for the song to flare up and die down again

In a tiring if not unsurprising twist, Fifa’s reprimands to Mexico have only served to increase the popularity of the chant in some quarters, culminating in the utterly galling night in Los Angeles when Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy were putting on a ‘Pride Night’ to celebrate the LGBT community during a game against FC Dallas, only for the evening to be tarnished by a slew of homophobic chants from the home supporters.

It feels like the nadir reading about instances like that. A night planned to celebrate a vibrant, diverse community in Los Angeles, at the club where the first ‘out’ male professional footballer, Robbie Rogers, played until his retirement in 2017, where people decide to go out of their way to sing homophobic chants.

And then there are moments like Joe Root staring down Shannon Gabriel, “there is nothing wrong with being gay” he says in his smooth Yorkshire tone, and it gives you a little more hope.

Why does it give us hope? Well, there are a few reasons. First and foremost, you had likely never heard about the slurs at Pride Night until just now. It happened in May, and as utterly soul-destroying it is to think about how it must have felt to be a gay person at the StubHub Center that night, there was little fallout. No arrests we know of, no signs of change, just a couple of furrowed brows, press releases and an evening that left the bitterest of tastes.

Watching Root take on Gabriel, a brief video clip that has already done several laps of the digital world, there is a little more belief that something concretely positive might emerge.

This incident should help shine a light on the hyper-macho culture in West Indian cricket and, indeed, society. Those who have worked in the sport in the Caribbean tell stories of legendary partying and womanising that get passed on with more rum and vigour at every stage of the Chinese whispers, but these lifestyles manifest themselves more obviously and publicly in Chris Gayle’s nauseating comments to female journalists, an unwanted approach from a man who has been allowed to live with nobody telling him no - solely because he’s good at hitting a cricket ball quite far.

This incident should help inspire other sportsmen and women to call out homophobia when they see, hear and feel it on the field.

There has been some criticism of Root already for his press conference comments in which people accuse him of brushing over the incident. There was an element of excessive British politeness to Root’s words afterwards, a tad too much sportsmanship and understanding to Gabriel, who is nearly 31 years old and should know better.

Root did not elaborate on the incident with Gabriel after the day's play

"You're playing Test cricket,” he said.

“People will look at this game as a dead rubber but it certainly doesn't feel like that when you're playing for your country - everything counts, every opportunity counts.

"You can see that in the way he approaches the game and that's how I feel about it as well.

"Sometimes things are said on the field but they should stay on the field. I think they can sometimes be caught in the moment and not always say what you want to say or think you're saying.

"I think you should leave it there."

The criticism of Root was that he continued the sporting omertá by not hanging Gabriel out to dry and suggesting what happens on the field should stay there, but is it not far easier to stand back quietly and only say something afterwards? Had Root gone about things the other way around, calling out the fast bowler after the day’s play but saying nothing in the moment, would he not then come under the reverse scrutiny?

Root led by example in more than one way on Monday 

What we saw from Root was essentially a split-second example of why he is so likeable. He’s a baby-faced Yorkshireman who has stood up against the biggest, fastest, scariest bowlers in the world and conquered them. He was England captain in his mid-twenties, scoring a century in his first Test as skipper. He has a child, and married his girlfriend Carrie at the picturesque Thornbridge Hall in Yorkshire last summer where he got up on stage and wowed guests with his singing. This is a man whose life is already beyond his wildest dreams growing up, an example to young boys everywhere, and he called out something wrong instinctively, in the moment, when it mattered.

There is so much power in watching him do that, effectively a script to follow for every young sportsperson watching and an example to call on when it matters.

But Root’s retort to Shannon Gabriel also strikes a chord with people because he was trying to educate the man uttering the insult, rather than simply chastise him.

Watching this diminutive batsman from Sheffield stand up to a hulking seamer from Trinidad who had spent the last 30 minutes trying to hit him with a 90mph projectile of leather and cork, it was a reminder to the world that even where governing bodies in sport or politics or education fail to protect those discriminated against, the power of the individual remains enormous.

We can stand up to people and we can educate them. Education will always be far more effective than humiliation, the preferred path of the social media mob.

Root has shown the true power of the individual voice (Reuters)

And the lessons learned from Root’s few seconds of televised courage, caught by stump microphones, translate across all types of prejudice. A fitting reminder, at a time when sport most needed it, that we can all have our own influence on the world if we have the courage to be bold.

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