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Out on the Football Field

Out on the Football Field

In 1974, George Montague was convicted of gross indecency. This was the legal name given to the ‘crime’ of homosexuality in a time when a consensual relationship between two men could make both of you criminals.

Following a royal pardon given to Alan Turing a few years ago, over 50,000 men were recently given pardons for a crime they were convicted of, but that no longer exists. But George said that he wanted an apology, not a pardon, “To accept a pardon means you accept that you were guilty. I was not guilty of anything.”

Perhaps this is one of the problems with homophobia in society, when compared to racism, for example. Homosexuality is mistakenly considered by some as being a choice (and so in the past even a crime you could commit). I wonder if seen as a lifestyle ‘choice’, it is easier to see why the phobia lingers. Some men feel threatened by it, as if homosexuality is something you can catch or even that you can somehow be gay by association.

Apologies to other sports, but for this little slice of my meandering musings I’m going to focus on men’s football. This is partly because (despite its many flaws) it’s a passion of mine and partly because it’s the largest spectator sport the UK has, and therefore has a lot of scope to influence. That said, much applies to other sports I’m sure.

While there is certainly racism in football (and worrying levels in some countries), there is an improved picture in the UK in 2017 and certainly a downward trend in incidents. I’d also argue that racist chants would be viewed very negatively by the majority at a match in this country.

Sadly, I don’t think the same could be said for homophobia. The word ‘gay’ itself is still heard as an insult/adjective thrown around all too readily, in sport and beyond. Stonewall published a report, Leagues Behind, that said that seven in ten football fans have heard homophobic abuse while watching sport. This is despicable, but I fear much of what is heard is parcelled up as ‘banter’, thereby making it ‘harmless’, rather than something born of prejudice and hate. Again, not something that happens when racist abuse is discussed.

We have famous black players. Great players. World class athletes that are seen by many young people as role models, as heroes. Not so the gay footballer. They are there of course, it is statistically impossible for them not to be. But how many current, top level players are openly gay? Not one. A quick gander at Wikipedia throws up a ‘List of Gay Footballers’. There are SIX names in total, only two of whom still play, and none of which are household names.

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Not exactly Galacticos… Robbie Rogers (MLS) and Thomas Hitzlsperger (retired)

This can’t help but send a damaging message to everyone, especially young gay men, that sport and homosexuality don’t mix. A recent survey by Radio 5 found that 82% of fans in the UK are comfortable with their club signing an openly gay player. Unfortunately, this leaves 18% who aren’t comfortable with the idea and worse, there are 8% who say they would stop supporting their club if an openly gay player were signed. I would say good riddance to the 8% – it’s saddening and maddening in equal measure.

What will it take to change things? FA chairman Greg Clarke warned players who came out would suffer “significant abuse”. Others, including ex-footballer Chris Sutton, argue that we don’t need more obstacles – once the first gay footballer comes out, others will follow.

I think he’s right, but there will be a lot of weight on that first man’s shoulders. It is difficult to say what tangible effects such a revelation could have. They are certain to get abuse from some elements in the crowd. But this sadly inevitable outcome will at least expose the 8% and, with increased reporting of abuse, it can then be shown up for what it is – unacceptable to the majority – and be driven out of football.

So, the first high profile gay footballer will need to be thick-skinned and have the vocal support of all those that seek to see diversity represented in sport. There is a possibility that their career might suffer too. It may be the case that clubs avoid a perceived risk to supporter income by employing a gay star and that sponsors have a similar fear about brand perceptions.

On the flip side, being in the vanguard, a trailblazer, would certainly  get people’s attention. The first openly gay footballers will certainly have an increased profile, not to mention the fact that they will be heroes to many, including an audience who have long been short-changed in terms of sporting idols. Perhaps new sponsors may step forward?

Ideally, a player with the status of a Messi or a Ronaldo would step forward and tell the world they are gay, providing a big push to get the seemingly immobile ball of acceptance rolling. If not, then a group of players collectively deciding to come out could be the answer. And I hope this happens sooner rather than later. It’ll certainly be a cause for celebration when it does.

And this collective approach extends to us all. Everyone, and especially those with a following on social media, a voice people listen to, need to be vocal about their support for football becoming a family that welcomes everyone. In these times when fear and division are all too often being cultivated, I’d like to believe football can be a force for good in society and that the people’s game can become a game for all people.

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More than Medals

Forgive me reader, for I have sinned.  It has been ten weeks since my last post.  I feel I need to apologise, either for leaving you bereft of my witty repartee or for inflicting my efforts on your poor eyes once again. Since I last put digit to keyboard we’ve had the little matter of somethings called an Olympics and a Paralympics.  You may have heard of them.  It’s fair to say that the Games had a somewhat downbeat preamble, with plenty of discussion about the costs of putting on such a huge, expensive event against the backdrop of a significant wealth divide in Brazil.

On a sporting front however, ambitious targets were set by Team GB following London and it’s fair to say that most people (certainly most fans) were not expecting the medal haul to come close to four years ago.  Many assumed that ‘playing at home’ was a big factor and that an overseas competition would mean a drop in metallurgic returns.

But no, this wasn’t the case.  Both Olympic and Paralympic athletes scoffed in the face of such foolish notions and went on to bring home a beauteous bounty of podium places and broken records, both personal and for sports as a whole.

At the end of August I attended one of several ‘I Am Team GB’ events and it was a big success, with a real buzz of excitement.  There were far more visitors than expected and loads of kids, which was really positive. For me, the day was an opportunity for people to do three things:

  • Celebrate the achievement of the athletes (from Wales in particular) who contributed to an astonishing number of medals in Rio and maybe actually meet an Olympian
  • Try out a sport or two that they haven’t before
  • For the older among us, to be a little nostalgic about sports day, a stalwart fixture in the school calendar that many remember fondly (I think I did the long jump, but not due to ability but a teacherly desire to offer every child something to take part in)

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The day was a joyous celebration for Team GB.  A lot has been made of the medals won in Rio and attention directed toward the athletes and support teams responsible, as it was in London and before that.  The improvement in GB team’s performance has exceeded expectations and people are quite rightly very proud. Success in the games ignites passion and has again caused an increase in interest in grassroots sport participation.

But although the Team GB certainly excelled in performance terms, I do find myself wondering whether there was/is sufficient focus on the ‘Olympic spirit’.  There are many that are inspired by medals, but what will stay with me as much, if not more, are the examples we saw of camaraderie and breaking down of barriers.  The power of sport to unite people and build relationships without boundaries is key, after all –

“The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

First we had the bridge over the Korean divide.  Lee Eun-ju and Hong Un-Jong, from South and North Korea respectively, sent the world a selfie taken together during pre-Games training.  Many athletes take pictures together, but given that the two countries are technically at war, and both could easily face repercussions for this politically sensitive gesture, it was a brave and positive move.

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Then there was the marriage proposal.  Well, actually there were five Olympic marriage proposals in all, but the one most will remember was Marjorie Enya, proposing to Brazilian rugby player Isadora Cerullo. The proposal was televised as Marjorie took advantage of her role managing the venue to commandeer the PA system and pop the question.  And of course, the fact that the pair are women wouldn’t raise eyebrows to many these days, but the Olympics are watched by every nation on earth and sadly there are still many for whom such freedoms are impossible to imagine, so a positive affirmation of LGB&T relationships on the world stage is another reason to celebrate.

Last up is what for me, had the most lasting impact. Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino collided during the 5000m final and both fell in a tangle of limbs.  They struggled on, but when Abbey fell again injured, Nikki stopped to help her fellow athlete to complete the race. There was no thought of personal achievement, just a selfless gesture that was instinctive and sportsmanlike.  They may have finished last, but they  both finished and finished together, and this act of kindness was reported more widely than the race result itself.

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So, I’ll be enjoying the athletes’ success as they parade through Manchester and London today, as the Welsh competitors did in Cardiff recently to a rapturous reception, but I think it’s important as well to take time to remember – there’s more than one way to win.

Playing the game right is, I believe, more important than playing the game well.

 

Walk and Talk

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Walk and Talk

Modern life is all about short cuts. Labour-saving inventions to save us time and effort.  Time and effort that can be used for something else, be it work or leisure.

Let’s go back to the 80s. My gran’s TV was a fascinating machine. It was out of this magic box would spill our daily hour of children’s telly, and give the adults a break.  My gran would sit with us in ‘her chair’, but would often be sleeping before the hour was out. 

The TV went as far back as it did from side to side (no flat screen goodness), had a wooden surround and channels that were changed by way of four physical buttons – BBC1, BBC2, ITV1 and ITV2.  There wasn’t an ITV2 when the TV was made of course, but the expectation was that there soon would be.  

The TV set was also made before the advent of the remote control.  Nowadays, having to peel yourself off the sofa mid-box set binge is only necessary when the batteries in the remote run out.

There are myriad other innovations, inventions and gadgets that relieve us of the need to exert ourselves more than the minimum – a plethora of appliances, vehicles and tools to give us more valuable time to, well, what?  Hopefully to get out and walk the dog. Maybe hunt errant Pokemon?  I fear that much of our saved time though is spent doing not very much, something squarely in sedentary territory.

Many modern appliances like our washing machines and dishwashers would be greatly missed by many and I wouldn’t want to suggest that such progress is bad, but inevitably the labour that we are saved is mostly physical and so naturally, the modern human has less need to expend as many calories. And do we balance things out with exercise?  Not enough is the answer.

Talking of appliances, we can see with one appliance, the vacuum cleaner, how progression has gone from labour-saving to just plain lazy.  Vacuuming used to require a fair few runs over the same patch of carpet before you’d suggest it was clean. Returning to my gran for a moment, I remember her having a vacuum cleaner that weighed a ton and picked up far less.  Using it was a real workout.  Vacuum cleaner technology improved and time taken to clean was reduced.  Cordless cleaners then saved us from unplugging the appliance and plugging it back in in each room, saving more time again.  And now, we have the automatic vacuum cleaner. One can purchase something that looks like an over-sized hockey puck that will go off on its own and clean your floors (and scare your cat).  So, we have the vacuuming equivalent of the remote control.  A device that requires no effort bar changing batteries.

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This is not a technology blog though (much as my inner geek would love it to be).  I’m writing about labour-saving inventions as these have given us back time, but taken away a need to be as physically active.   With mobile phones and email we can communicate from wherever we are.  With modern transport we can (painfully slowly at times) get to where we want with minimal waggling of lazy legs.  As adults our working practices are often bound to desks and children now are increasingly exposed to screen-based entertainment that has the power to transfix them into a quiet stupor (an understandably appealing prospect to tired parent).

So, while the need to be physically active to achieve everyday tasks is diminishing, the need to be active for the sake of our heart and our mind (exercising less is not good for your mental health either) is not. From ever more regular media reports we know all about the dangerous obesity levels in the Western world and while there are a number of sports that can help fight the flab and keep your heart healthy, there are smaller, simple ways that you can make a difference too.  For us bees in the modern office hive, sitting down for eight hours is dangerous to our health.

Try getting off that seat and going to another office to talk to a colleague.  Revolutionary, I know.  As quick as an email or call is, meeting face to face makes for a better interaction AND might involve a few more valuable calories burned.  Also, if you drive or take a bus to work, park further away or get off a few stops early if you can.  You probably won’t lose much time, but you will lose incremental inches.  And last of all, don’t take the lift unless you a) physically can’t manage stairs or b) work in a skyscraper.

The average person in the UK walks about half a mile a day.  Thirty years ago this was two thirds of a mile. Advances in technology invariably mean needing to move less to get by, meaning we’re on a collision course with heart problems, diabetes and more unless we take steps (literally and figuratively) to counter the real threat inherent in spending too long standing still.

Fat as a Fiddle

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Fat as a Fiddle

Booty is in the eye of the beholder.  What you think of as thin or fat may differ substantially from what I or anyone else might do.  One man’s flabby is another man’s fabulous.  One thing for sure is that the subject of someone’s weight/shape is rarely one for public conversation, unless the tone is positive – ‘Have you lost weight?’ etc.

I am overweight.  I’m not going to say fat, but mainly because that term can be subjective and I’ll apply it to myself one day and not the next. My self view can even change from one minute to the next. Now, men in general sometimes talk about their weight and other men’s weight, but almost always in the negative (and usually in a teasing way).  This is in contrast to my experience of what happens when women discuss the subject.  My experience of overhearing their conversations is that you’re more likely to have a group of women who take issue with their bodies and weight, while the others act as an impromptu support group.

The size and shape of women is a media-fuelled obsession and one you could write endlessly about, it’s a glaring spotlight that places unrealistic and unhealthy pressure upon young girls in particular.  Men are seldom judged by the same criteria, but they certainly judge themselves.

body image

I refer you back to the sentence further up – ‘I am overweight’.  Read it again. There will almost certainly be some people reading (ones who know me), whose first instinct was – ‘No, he’s not’.  And there’ll be different reasons for that I’m sure.  You have a different idea of ‘overweight’, perhaps.  You simplify things down to thin, normal and fat, therefore putting me in the middle third?  Maybe you’re reading this, are in similar shape to me, and don’t like to think of yourself as heavier than perhaps you should be.  Most likely though it is British reserve/politeness that keeps most people from giving their opinion on others’ physical appearance and that extends even to what we are thinking.

And, in the main, this isn’t a bad thing.  Unabridged honesty about the people around us could lead to some tense friendships and awkward offices.

But, as we’re all too aware, obesity is increasingly an issue.  A deadly one.  Between 20 and 30% of 4-5 year olds in Wales are overweight or obese and over 80% of obese children are obese as they get older too.  Worrying stuff.

I play some sport because I enjoy it, but the majority of my sometimes reluctant exercise is undertaken to make me healthier as well as trimmer.  It’s all too easy for your bodily circumference to slowly, surreptitiously slip outwards and your feet fade from view…  Over the years I’ve let each new waist measurement become my ‘normal’, the new yardstick beyond which I judge to be ‘too much’ and cue for me to move more. My ever-moving goalpost.

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In a sense we’re caught between two potentially conflicting issues.  There’s certainly a challenge around expectations regarding appearance and shape being continuously thrust in our faces by the media and reinforced by peers, but we can’t let it go too far the other way with the subject of excessive, unhealthy weight not being broached.

There are positive ways of facing up to the issue.  With children, their diets can be managed and exercise encouraged (as well as limits placed on time spent on sedentary activities). With friends or partners, subtlety is key.  Making exercise a social activity is one way to encourage a reticent runner to pound the pavement, but with adults, they have to want to eat better, drink less or exercise more.  But as a friend or husband/wife, we can sieze on opportunities and support someone when they decide to stop moving their own goalposts.

The Galactico Sideshow

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Wales and Portugal have had quite different journeys at the European Championships in France.  Aside from a narrow loss against England in their second game, Wales have won all of their games at the competition and have gone from being solid to spectacular as the competition has progressed.  Portugal have shown flashes of inspiration and their attacking potential, but you still feel they haven’t flourished as yet. But then Wales more than coped with all of the flair Belgium could muster.

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A first ever semi-final for Wales should be the main story here.  But the press love a personal confrontation, a gladiatorial clash of titans.  Or, in this case, Galacticos.  At Real Madrid, Bale and Ronaldo are on the same side, though talk of them not getting on too well seems to rear up from time to time. And that helps fuel the story of confrontation, but as with the press in the UK, I’m sure a lot of this is maybe a little bit exaggerated to sell Spanish tabloids.  To get to where Bale and Ronaldo are, you need to focus on your own performance and your contribution to the team.

Yes, I’m going to talk about teamwork again.  The press is already putting a lot of focus on Bale and Ronaldo right up until kick off, and you can see why.  Everyone knows their names.  They’re the star players.  So their respective teams’ success will depend on their performances tomorrow night.  Or will it?

Watching Portugal, you sense that Ronaldo is the self-elected focal point for the team. He tries to get involved wherever he can, that’s for sure.  A laudable commitment, but it means that he wants to be everywhere, winning every ball and hitting every shot, and when a potential pass to him doesn’t materialise, he doesn’t always react like a real star should (but as sadly many do).

ronny

Watching Bale is very different.  He very obviously has a higher level of skill than his teammates (as well as most on the planet). His composure on the ball, turn of pace and eye for a pass mark him out.  But he operates as a team member first and foremost.  The fact that he has superb individual talent is a bonus.  I haven’t yet seen Bale grab a game by the scruff of the neck and win it by himself, but that’s his role.  He has scored and assisted more than the others, but more as a result of adding a little finesse to a well-drilled unit, than waltzing past a whole opposition team single-handed.

And this Galactico sideshow will suit Chris Coleman just fine.  The press can concentrate on a one-on-one Real Madrid dust up and Wales can concentrate on playing as they have up till now.  As a unit.  As Wales. Not as Bale & Co.

Wales didn’t go into the game against Belgium as favourites and despite their performance last Friday, they’re still the bookies’ favourites to be flying home to Rhoose on Thursday morning.  Having seen both teams play and, for all the potential danger Portugal pose, they are still somewhat reliant on Ronaldo, who is desperate to be conductor, general and national hero.

Bale gets the headlines, gets quoted in papers and is on the majority of Welsh shirts, but Wales’ amazing story in France has been built on the solid foundations of a team with palpable passion, sticking to a plan and working hard for each other.

All people are talking about is football here in Cardiff now, regardless of prior interest levels, and I’ve heard numerous tales of kids wanting to perfect a ‘Robson-Kanu turn’ in the garden or want to get hair like Bale (not sure about that one).  It’s exciting and Football has always had the participation numbers in Wales, but hasn’t really had a winning team to match. I just hope the FAW are able to cope with the explosion of interest in the sport created by Wales’ endeavours.

Of course, if they don’t make it past the semi-final tomorrow, they’ll still get a heroes’ welcome and rightly be called winners anyway, but I have a feeling that the odyssey of this special Welsh team is not over just yet.

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A Dance with Dragons

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England. A population of 53 million. A team full of stars (so they say). What words spring to mind when I think about their football team as a fan? Expectation. Pressure. Complacency. Disappointment. Booing. Fighting.

I can’t choose the national team I support as it was decided when I born, all those years ago in sunny Hampshire.  So I’m stuck with England, for better, for worse. There have been good times, memorable results and joy, real joy as a supporter.  But too many of my fellow fickle fans and much of the media lambasts the side when they fail to get past a quarter final, despite this being a fairly accurate indication of their place in the footballing hierarchy.

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Wales.  A population less than half that of London.  A team of Bale, Ramsey and a little known supporting cast, many from the second tier of UK football. What words are conjured up though? Hope. Adventure. Team spirit. Support. Singing.

Living in Wales for 19 years has allowed me to share vicariously in what it means to be Welsh and cheering for Wales.  It’s hard to not get caught up in.  It’s infectious.  Over the years I’ve mainly seen it through rugby. Every six nations game is an event bursting with national pride.  And, win or lose, the anthem always comes from the heart, as do countless other songs during the match and long after, songs that echo through bars and streets and homes. Songs that say, above all, ‘We are Wales’.

The cheers for England are genuine and the suggestion that their support isn’t passionate is misplaced I think, but the difference for me is that you feel that the English supporters are cheering for the team and the Welsh are cheering for the country itself.  This makes for a support that is unflinching and all the more potent for it.

The media reaction to, and interpretation of England and Wales’ respective fortunes is telling as well.  When either team wins, there’s euphoria in the press and a pinch of hyperbole thrown in to boot, but the London press never misses a chance to knock down what they so readily build up.  So if England win, but play badly, there’s criticism of the under-performing players and the result gets missed a little. If they lose (god forbid!) then there’s a full blown investigation and castigation of all involved.

Wales lost to England, their fiercest rivals, last week and the Welsh press’ reaction – as well as that of the FAW and many people I spoke to – was to praise the players’ efforts and push a message of moving on to the next game together. Learning. Growing. Improving.

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And this is why people are right to say that no-one will want to play Wales in the next round.

Not because they just beat Russia 3-0, ran rampant and could have scored more.

Not because they top Group B when bookies had them scrapping for third place.

And not because of Bale. One of the best players in the world he certainly is, but other countries have their stars too.  His fellow Galactico, Ronaldo, has not seen his team reach the same kind of levels of intensity and effort, reflected in their underwhelming performances so far.

In this competition, any eleven players on their day can beat any other eleven players. But to beat a country itself is a different, tougher proposition and that is what faces Wales’ opponents in the next round.  Defeating a nation with the spirit of Wales is no small task and one no team will relish facing.

You, Me, LGB&T

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After writing a few pieces on my experience with sport and exercise, the LGB&T Sport Cymru team asked if I would pen my thoughts on LGB&T people in sport.

This isn’t written from an LGB&T point of view, but based on my own experiences on sport and feeling like an outsider (a feeling many people can relate to I’m sure).  Apologies in advance for what is a longer than normal post by the way.

As I’ve said before, I didn’t enjoy sport much as a child and my experience at school was not a positive one.  I was (unbelievable as it might seem) a quiet, bookish child.  A nerd/geek/dweeb type.  Sport is a social function and part of the reason I didn’t get involved as much as I could have when I was younger is due to a lack of social confidence.  There were the ‘cool’ kids and then there were the rest of us.  The ‘cool’ ones were fiercely mainstream and any deviance from the accepted ‘norm’ could spell a place on the side lines.

This is where my world and the LGBT world overlaps.  I wasn’t mainstream as I was too quiet and preferred books to bunking off.  The mainstream boy culture was about chasing girls and being as much of a ‘man’ as possible, which included sporting prowess, but definitely not homosexuality.

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I’m sure my school was not alone in having the word ‘gay’ and a million variants, used as pejorative terms.  And when they were thrown at me (as they were at everyone at some point), I was hurt.  Not because being gay was a bad thing (I doubt I understood it really), but because you knew that the terms were intended to hurt and humiliate.  How much more hurtful would they have been if I was gay myself?  I honestly can’t imagine.

I had gay friends at school (probably more than I was actually aware of) and, like me, they often found solace and open minds within the arts fraternity, rather than on a pitch.  I don’t personally think that sport is homophobic in and of itself, but from an early age, I found it to be a common platform for the confident, mainstream kids to score social points, with little room for self-expression.  The most popular boys at school dated the prettiest girls and hit the most sixes.

Viewing sport wholly as a competitive activity, especially with young people, can inhibit inclusivity as someone’s differences can be wielded as weapons against them, and a weakened opponent is easier to defeat.  Without maturity, fairness can be pushed aside if it stands in the way of sporting success. The appeal of sport for me though is its ability to bring people together, regardless of background, culture or ability.

And what can we do to improve inclusivity? And what can I do?  Homophobia is an issue in society, not just sport, but sport has the potential to be a both a particular problem area and also a place where a difference can be made.  As a heterosexual man a key thing I can do is to not stand by when homophobic terms are used.  Sadly, the sport I love most, football, can be one of the worst culprits.  You can’t chastise or challenge a whole crowd, but if the person next to you uses a homophobic slur, I will say something to them.  In itself it may do little, but it enough people challenge this kind of language, it can make a difference.  I’m not about to suggest that football crowds can’t be racist for example, but you wouldn’t hear the same language now as you would some 10-20 years ago.  Things can improve.

I’ve heard homophobic language in my five a side league (only once, luckily) and I challenged the man on it at the time.  I said that I wasn’t happy with him saying what he’d said, and I’d report him to the league organisers if he continued.  He wasn’t happy, but he did stop.  Straight away.  He may have done it again the next week of course, but if he gets challenged EVERY time, it might stop.  And that’s another step in the right direction.

Essentially, part of what LGBT Sport Cymru stand for is the same thing.  It’s about putting the message out clearly that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are unacceptable.  Full stop.  They partner with the major sports to make a stand that is clear and united.  If a governing body says it’s unacceptable, players and teams say it’s unacceptable AND we as fans do the same, there’s nowhere for the closed-minded, the bullies, to go.

If you heard your partner, your daughter, your son or your friend use racist language, there’s a good chance you’d react.  Hopefully you’d say that it wasn’t right and was offensive.  But would you say the same about homophobic language?  I hope so.  It’s no less damaging and has just as much place in a decent society, and that of course, is no place at all.

NB: This piece was written prior to the horrific mass shooting in Orlando on 12th June.

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