Homophobia remains, as we’ve unfortunately had to discuss several times, a serious problem in global sport, and we’ve looked numerous times at both worthwhile and faulty efforts to tackle the issue in English football in particular. But one place progress has been made is in rugby, as Gary Andrews discussed here with the case of Gareth Thomas, the former British Lions captain who came out last year. And from there, we can learn lessons.
Thomas now plays for Welsh Rugby League club Crusaders, having switched codes from Rugby Union. In general, the fact Thomas is gay has been taken by the rugby community in the way it should be: no big deal. But at a game on 26 March against the Castleford Tigers in the latter’s stadium, The Jungle, Thomas was subjected to homophobic chanting by a small number of fans. Instead of brushing it under the carpet, the Rugby Football League (RFL) officials have taken some significant action, fining the club £40,000. Not a huge amount, but a substantial sum for a club like Castleford and there’s also talk that Castleford’s Super League license may be jeopardised next season as well.
Thomas’ comments a couple of weeks ago about the action taken by the league speak to its significance beyond rugby:
“I hope this starts a little snowball effect,” he told BBC Radio 5 live.
“The tide is turning – it’s a long way off I’m sure, but it can only help not just rugby league but all sports I’m sure,” added the 35-year-old Thomas.
“My dream is that one day people don’t have to declare their sexuality because it’s not an issue.
“That’s why I think this is such a momentous occasion. The RFL are saying it’s not a problem – you’re making it one if you chant and abuse – otherwise we’ve got no problem.”
That last piece of phrasing by Thomas is, I think, perfect: fans who bring homophobic abuse to the stadium are the ones bringing the problem, one that if authorities do clamp down on clubs for, means it is an issue clubs will have to proactively deal with to encourage a culture of no tolerance for homophobic chanting.
Significantly, the RFL found that Castleford had not met RFL standards “in trying to stop the chanting and in identifying the perpetrators, as well as for failing to conduct a “meaningful inquiry” afterwards.”
“The rugby league authorities have clamped down and sent an amazing message to sport in general, to supporters and people who want to play the sport,” concluded Thomas. Exactly.