Unlike in European sport, anti-gay sentiment still runs deep in North American leagues: Michael Coren
The distinction is geographical, as well as generational
Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas weighs 230 pounds and stands six feet three inches tall. In his prime he ran like the wind — he was a terrifying tackler of opponents even bigger than him — and played for his country a hundred times, sometimes as captain. He was a champion, in a game where toughness and machismo run deep and broad.
In Wales it is something more. For three million people, the game symbolizes their pride, independence and very being. So for Thomas, the agony of concealing his sexuality — the fact that he was gay — was tearing him apart. "I couldn't sleep, couldn't blink, became scared of the dark," he said. "Everybody wanted to be me, but I only wanted to be like everyone else."
Finally, after one particular game he broke down in tears and wept like a baby. The coach asked him what had happened. "I knew I could either close the door again or just kick it wide open." He opted for the latter. The coach replied that he knew he was gay and that it didn't matter. "Now let's get on with playing rugby and leading Wales." The entire country reacted in the same way.
I write this because of what Toronto Blue Jays player Kevin Pillar said recently when he was angry, perhaps justifiably, at an Atlanta Brave reliever. He called Jason Motte a homophobic slur, and the camera was squarely on Pillar as he did so.
Pillar's initial apology was vague, but he did later refer to the specific homophobia of the comment and offered contrition. Well, he would wouldn't he? The hiatus was telling, the damage was done and he has been suspended for two games. But the real issue is not one player but an entire attitude. Anti-gay sentiment and feeling still runs strong in North American sport.
The geographical distinction is relevant here. There are numerous problems in European sport with crowd violence, and even racism in parts of the south and the post-Communist east. In soccer very few players and no genuine stars have come out, even though we know there are gay men in senior positions. But things have changed enormously, even in this essentially working-class and tribal phenomenon.
Elton John became chairman of Watford, a major soccer team, as long ago as 1976, the same year he came out. The team I follow, Tottenham, is in one of the most deprived areas of London, where political correctness and social niceties are hardly priorities. Yet a proud rainbow flag is to be seen at every game – clearly visible on the perennial television coverage. In 2007, David Beckham said publicly, "I'm very honoured to have the tag of gay icon," and Nigel Owens, who is openly gay, refereed the rugby World Cup final in 2015.
It's also a generational issue. Those just a few years younger than the 28-year-old Pillar have a very different attitude, and homophobic terms are generally not in their vocabulary.
I have a son who plays professional soccer in New Zealand and has played in England and for Canadian varsity and semi-professional teams. He remembers the day when the league asked players to put rainbow laces in their boots. "It wasn't that all of these guys punched the air in solidarity," he says. "It's that they didn't care. A few years ago I assure you some of them would have refused, would have been frightened of being called the very word that Pillar just used."
In 2014 American football player Michael Sam came out, the first openly gay player to be drafted in the NFL. At the time, various sources said that they doubted he would be drafted because of his sexuality, which pretty much guaranteed that he would be accepted. The optics, had he not, would have been appalling.
Sam's career didn't blossom however, and NBC journalist Jason Page wrote later, "I remember wiping the tears from my face. I thought to myself and aloud on my radio show, this is going to change everything. In reality, it seems to have changed little. In fact, you might even be able to argue that things have gone backwards in terms of when we will see another openly gay player in the NFL."
Page may well be correct in that since Sam's, announcement there have been no campaigns to promote sexual diversity, no other gay players coming forward and no attempts to encourage younger players who might be gay. In Gareth Thomas's case the opposite was true.
We all say things we don't mean in temper and heat, and visceral reactions are part of sport. But what is significant about the Kevin Pillar incident is that those words have to be there in the first place.
It wasn't very long ago that racial epithets were routinely used in sport; now, they are incredibly rare. Pillar's outburst may not signify a conscious, tangible dislike of gay people, but it does imply a gut-level assumption that being gay is a lesser way of being, and that to describe someone or something thus is to denote disapproval. Sport is the often the sharp end of societal attitudes, and as well as reflecting popular culture it can shape it.
Times are changing, but not quickly enough. What Pillar and his colleagues need to remember is that striking out matters, coming out doesn't.