Nigel Owens (AP)
London - The often-brutal sport of rugby
has become an unlikely international sports leader in forcing players to accept
It has not been easy.
Nigel Owens, who will referee the World Cup
final on Saturday, considered suicide because of the difficulties he faced
after coming out in 2007.
Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas has spoken
out against the barbs he faced after announcing his homosexuality.
But players such as Australian David
Pocock, who will be in Saturday's final, have taken a gay rights stand on the
pitch and the World Rugby governing body has backed a campaign by activists.
Neither football nor the US major
professional leagues can claim such acts.
Justin Fashanu, the first top English
footballer to come out, committed suicide in 1998. He had been accused of
sexual assault and felt he would not get a fair trial because of his
Thomas was capped over 100 times by Wales
and captained the British and Irish Lions. He declared his sexuality and
separated from his wife Jemma in 2009 and is now a television pundit.
Thomas, who had a reputation as a bruiser
on the field, said there is still too much anti-gay bar room humour in changing
"We all like to have a good laugh when
playing or watching sport," he said this year.
"However, when this comes at the
expense of gay people, it pushes athletes trying to hide their sexuality,
deeper in the closet or they simply stop playing team sports.
"I am one of those who hid his
sexuality for years because this kind of language created an environment where
it seemed impossible to be accepted as a gay man."
But he said not all of it showed homophobic
"After I came out of the closet, many
of my greatest supporters were teammates who in the past, had made the most
jokes about gay people."
Fellow Welshman Owens came out in 2007 but
has remained one of the most respected rugby referees.
On Saturday he will be in charge of players
in the New Zealand-Australia final who have spoken out against homophobia, such
as Wallaby stars David Pocock and Adam Ashley-Cooper.
Pocock has said he will not marry his
girlfriend until gay marriage is legalised in Australia. He brought the debate
into the spotlight this year by telling a referee to stop a Super Rugby game
when Jacques Potgieter, a flank for Australian side the Waratahs, twice shouted
Pocock received support on the field for
his demand from Brumbies teammate and Australia captain Stephen Moore.
"It was an offhand remark made without
thought for the hurt it could cause," said South African Potgieter, who
was fined $14 000 for his remarks though half was suspended.
Ashley-Cooper, one of Australia's biggest
stars, said he has friends and family who are gay.
"We need to change sporting culture in
Australia and around the world and make sure everyone feels included and
safe," he told the Australian national gay newspaper Star Observer in
Pocock believes the fault does not lay just
with the conservative world of rugby.
"Athletes aren't coming out because of
the homophobia in society," Pocock told International Gay Rugby this year.
"I don't think sports is any more
homophobic than wider society in Australia and in many cases it is not the
overt homophobia it is the casual putdowns.
"It isn't until we challenge that
nature and the language that they will be a bit more comfortable in their own
The sport's governing body World Rugby and
its president Bernard Lapasset have signed an agreement with International Gay
Rugby on steps to eradicate homophobia.
"One of the principles of our
agreement with International Gay Rugby is the right of any player, official and
spectator to be involved with rugby without discrimination on the grounds of
sexual orientation or identification," said Lapasset in a statement.
"And it is great to see the global
rugby family and some of the biggest names in the sport, uniting to support and
live this principle."