English rugby has been praised for clamping down on homophobia in the sport, though a leading gay referee warns there is still work to be done in eradicating the problem.
A British government select committee released a report Sunday investigating the prevalence of homophobia in UK sport and how the ruling bodies were dealing with it.
It said soccer clubs “in particular are not doing enough and should take a tougher approach” and compared them unfavorably to the stance of the English Rugby Union (RFU).
In November 2014, two rugby fans were banned for two years and each ordered to pay £1,000 ($1,250) to a charity of gay referee Nigel Owens’ choice after the Welshman was verbally abused while officiating an international match between England and Wales at Twickenham.
“I don’t think rugby can take the moral high ground … but it does better address those issues than a lot of other sports do,” Owens told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee in his testimony.
“When that instance in Twickenham was brought to the attention of the RFU, it was dealt with.
“As far as homophobia goes, there are some issues in rugby that need to be addressed and need to be eradicated, but I think rugby is aware of those problems and it does all it can to eradicate them.”
“No place in our sport’
The committee also praised rugby union’s rival code rugby league for its response when openly gay player Keegan Hirst received homophobic abuse on Twitter after a game in September 2016.
His club at the time, Batley Bulldogs, banned the supporter from its stadium.
“There is no place in our sport for homophobic abuse or indeed any abuse and we wish to send out a clear message,” the club said.
The committee said rugby union, along with sports such as swimming and diving, had made “significant progress” in increasing the visibility of gay participants.
The RFU said it supported nine gay rugby clubs across England, and planned to bid for the right to again stage the biennial international Bingham Cup tournament — an amateur gay rugby union tournament — which was held in Manchester in 2012.
It said its “We Call It Rugby” campaign featured an advert aimed at breaking down barriers for LGBT people, profiling the gay and inclusive Manchester Spartans club, and overall the series of videos had reached almost 35 million people through outdoor advertising, social media and television.
The campaign was aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds, an age group the committee said was notable for gay athletes dropping out of their sports.
“It appears that young players and athletes sometimes feel that they have to make the active choice between either coming out or continuing to participate in their chosen sport,” it said.
“As a result, players and athletes either drop out of sport together or, as has been the case with some professional sportspeople, they wait until after retirement to come out.”
‘A personal and private decision’
While the rugby codes have had openly gay professionals such as Hirst and former Wales captain Gareth Thomas, the committee noted that elite UK football has no active “out” players.
England’s Football Association said homophobia “is an issue that we take very seriously” and was one of chairman Greg Clarke’s “top priorities.”
Robbie Rogers did come out after leaving English club Leeds, but only returned to the game in his native US with the Los Angeles Galaxy. In 2014, former Premier League star Thomas Hitzlsperger announced he was gay months after retiring.
Justin Fashanu was the first black English footballer to command a £1 million transfer fee, in 1981, but he never played for another top-level team after publicly coming out nine years later.
“From the evidence we have received in this inquiry, we believe there are many gay athletes who have not come out, because they are frightened of the impact this decision will have on their careers, and the lives of the people they love,” chair of the committee, MP Damian Collins, said in a statement.
“That is not acceptable and should not be tolerated.”
Collins added: “Coming out is a personal and private decision and no sportsperson should feel under pressure or feel ‘forced’ to come out, but sports authorities must create an environment, in the stadium and the locker room, where players and athletes at all levels feel it is a choice they can make, and that they will be supported and accepted if they do.
The Premier League and the Football League — the organization that regulates the 72 clubs outside the top flight — said they were committed to creating a welcoming environment. Both cited the support they had given to an app that’s designed to ensure a zero-tolerance approach to abuse.
“The League and our clubs do a range of work to promote equality and diversity in our competition and across the sport,” said the Premier League in a statement, adding that “the LGBT community is a vital and integral part of our community.”
“More needs to be done by the authorities to address both the overt and latent homophobia that exists within sport.”